Bible Study, 4 Lent (B) – March 18, 2012

Discussion Leader: Paula Toland, Episcopal Divinity School

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
(Click on the link to jump down the page to each reading.)


Numbers 21:4-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.
5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’
6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.
7 The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.
8 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’
9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Comments from this week’s seminarian, Paula Toland:

For Moses and his community, serpents represented both a threat to physical life for those unfortunate enough to be bitten and, if we follow their thinking that God sent the poisonous snakes, divine retribution for their lapse in faith that God would provide as God had promised. Yet they also were the sign to the people that they needed to repent and amend their lives, so they asked Moses to pray for them; the Lord answered with very practical advice, and the bronze serpent became a source of healing.

The people were redeemed, transformed by their repentance and returned to faith in God and God’s divine promises. For us as we sit actively in this season of Lent, we may be lucky enough to avoid encounters with living serpents. However, we may encounter those figurative serpents that are the places we turn to avoid the hard work and discomfort that faith in God sometimes entails. Or perhaps we do not actively turn to those places but we let other things creep in and distract us from our faithful living. Whatever the case, Moses and his community can be the model for us of how to turn back to life in and with God.

Are there places in your life where you turn to avoid the hard work that faithful living can sometimes mean?

Are there things in your life that you are willing to give up or avoid in order to maintain your focus on your spiritual wellbeing and be healed?

Are you willing to humble yourself to ask for help to repent, to be redeemed and live a transformed life?


Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (Book of Common Prayer, p. 746)

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
and his mercy endures for ever.

2 Let all those whom the LORD has redeemed proclaim
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.

3 He gathered them out of the lands;
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

17 Some were fools and took to rebellious ways;
they were afflicted because of their sins.

18 They abhorred all manner of food
and drew near to death’s door.

19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

20 He sent forth his word and healed them
and saved them from the grave.

21 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy
and the wonders he does for his children.

22 Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving
and tell of his acts with shouts of joy.

Comments from this week’s seminarian, Paula Toland:

Psalm 107 almost seems like the logical next part in the narrative of Moses and his community, although we know that this is not actually the case. The psalm does, however, continue the theme of turning away from faith in God, who in this psalm is presented from the beginning as good and merciful, the God who creates community from the four corners of the earth. Unlike Moses’ community, these people don’t blame God for their troubles. And like Moses’ community, these people recognize their need to turn to God for deliverance from their distress, healing, and newness of life. They are then challenged to give thanks for God’s mercy and care, thanks which are to be given loudly and joyfully.

How do you feel about God in your times of trouble? Is God good and merciful or punishing?

Are you willing and able to give thanks to God with “shouts of joy”?


Ephesians 2:1-10 (New Revised Standard Version)

1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins
2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.
3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us
5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Comments from this week’s seminarian, Paula Toland:

St. Paul ratchets up the theme of sin and disobedience and its detrimental impact on our lives. He likens our sinful human nature to death. Living our humanness in this world in tantamount to death. This passage challenges my understanding of the inherent goodness in all of God’s creation, including our embodied selves. And yet I acknowledge and appreciate the wisdom in these words, because if we live only to and in this world as if this world were all that there is, we do lose the fullness of our lives. We are blessed to be created, nurtured and sustained through God’s unwavering love for us, manifest in our lives through God’s unfathomable grace. When we acknowledge that reality, when we chose to live faithful lives with an awareness that our physical lives are only a part of our story as God’s created, we are privileged to see the “immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.” It is difficult sometimes to live into this knowledge because it means that we do not get to take the credit for being loved as faithful people because of our good works.

Are you able to live your fully embodied life in this world with the knowledge that this is only a part of your story as God’s created?

Are you able to acknowledge that the newness of life we experience through Jesus Christ is not because of what we’ve done but because of who God is?


John 3:14-21 (New Revised Standard Version)

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Comments from this week’s seminarian, Paula Toland:

This passage from John brings us full circle from the passage from Numbers, and introduces the wonderful metaphors of darkness and light. Although v. 16 is one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses in the New Testament, it has so much more depth and expansiveness when juxtaposed against the Moses’ narrative about the serpents and the Ephesians passage about grace, not works. The added dimensions of this passage: that in the world there is both darkness and light, the light embodied through God’s gift of the Son to save the world, and that doing what is true means doing what is in God, opens up so many possibilities to carry that famous verse into the world in a way that is radically welcoming and life-giving. It suggests that it is not quite enough only to say that one is a believer because true belief does have something to do with our deeds. It seems to challenge us to bring all of our selves and our deeds into the light, to be witnessed as having “been done in God.”

What are the dark places in your life, places that you want to keep hidden from yourself and others? From God?

Are you willing to try to make the changes that will bring the words you profess about eternal life with God through Jesus consistent with your deeds in daily life?


  1. Roger Gentile says:

    Thank you for these notes. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t start work on next Sunday’s sermon until tomorrow (I need some rest!), but your thoughts are well worth keeping.

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