Bible Study: 2 Lent (A)

March 16, 2014

Brian PinterGeneral Theological Seminary

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-4a

The story of Abram’s call is an archetypal narrative that is repeated again and again throughout the biblical record. Artistic in its presentation, this text also presents deep spiritual truths. Notice, for example, the author’s use in verse 1 of a literary device called hendiadys: “your country and your kindred.” A single idea is cleverly expressed through the use of two words. We also see that the number of blessings Abram will receive is the classical biblical number signifying perfection: seven.

Beyond its beautiful, artistic form, this passage invites us to follow in Abram’s footsteps – to abandon ourselves to the guidance of God; to prepare ourselves to commence the great journey; to leave what is familiar, comfortable, but ultimately small and limiting and go to “a land that I will show you.” Our spiritual life is this archetype – going from what we know to what we don’t know; from the secure to the insecure. God calls us to follow God into the unknown. Where this journey will take us we cannot know, but we can be confident that by surrendering ourselves (i.e., our ego and all its small needs), we will be a blessing to many.

Is there a word or phrase in this passage that speaks to you today?

How have you experienced God’s call in your life to leave home “for a land that I will show you”?

Psalm 121

This psalm takes the form of a dialogue between a worshipper and a Temple priest. We notice a shift from first to second person within verses 1-4. The psalmist expresses confidence in the protection of God, reminiscent of the blessing of Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

This text continues the theme begun in our first reading from Genesis – the great spiritual pilgrimage of life. The “hills” of verse 1 represent both the heavenly dwelling place of God as well the holy city. The journey to this spiritual place will require protection and sustenance, and will not be without challenges. (For example, the sun of verse 6 will be hot!) Above all, the God who calls us to this journey will not forget us; will not fall asleep on us, unlike Baal of 1 Kings 18:27, whom Elijah mocked, “Maybe he’s asleep!”

While we will face dark nights and times of doubt, this psalm invites us to trust that God is sustaining us, shading us, supporting us as our pilgrim road bends over the horizon.

Is there a word or phrase in this passage that speaks to you today?

Where do you find yourself now on the spiritual pilgrimage of life – waiting for the call? The first steps? Resting in the shade? In the hot sun? How have you experienced God’s action on your journey?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

We see the thematic links in today’s reading from Romans with the first reading from Genesis. To understand Paul’s thought here, some background might be helpful. First, Paul did not found the church at Rome and, when he dictated this letter, had not yet visited the city. “Romans” was his way of introducing himself to the Christian community there and making his travel arrangements.

Second, Paul strongly believed that because we are now living in the age of the Messiah, the Mosaic Law is no longer necessary. Paul, in fact, spent a great deal of time in conflict with some Christians who felt otherwise about the Law. It is this issue of the necessity and validity of the Mosaic Law that Paul speaks to in this passage.

Paul points back to Abraham as the example par excellence that obedience to the law does not earn one God’s favor. The Grace of God is a gift. The promise to Abraham of many descendants and blessings was not because Abraham followed any law, but because of Abraham’s trusting faith. If God rewarded people simply because they observe a law, faith would mean nothing.

Furthermore (and this is one of Paul’s favorite issues to hammer), the presence of the Law only makes things worse. As the great biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., noted about Paul’s thought on this, “The prescriptions of the law are honored more in than in observance; in thus furthering transgressions, it promotes the reign of sin.” In other words, when there are more laws, there are more opportunities to break them. Paul saw this as a vicious circle that brought people nowhere.

Is there a word or phrase from this passage that speaks to you today?

Do you accept that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s blessing and grace? What are the obstacles you face to accepting this gift?

John 3:1-17

A key to understanding today’s text lies in the previous chapter, John 2:23: “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.”

Faith cannot be based on signs and wonders, just as God’s grace and blessing cannot be earned through obeying laws and performing works. In this passage, the author of this gospel uses one of his favorite literary devices – misunderstanding. Both those who believed in Jesus because of his miracles, and Nicodemus, misunderstand Jesus. Nicodemus thinks that Jesus’ performing of miraculous deeds is a sign of God’s approval. Jesus, however, explains to Nicodemus that Jesus has come from God’s presence.

Our gospel text is thematically linked with our previous readings through Jesus’ observation about the work of the spirit in verse 8. Entrance into God’s Kingdom cannot be earned by human beings; it requires the outpouring of the Spirit. The final verses of the reading provide the answer to Nicodemus’ question about being reborn of the Spirit – this occurs through the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Once again, a grand biblical archetype is tapped here – the way of ascent is descent; the way to life is through wounding and death; God has the power to transform death. Our challenge is to let God’s Spirit into to our broken hearts in order that the transformation, the rebirth, might begin.

Is there a word or phrase from this passage that speaks to you today?

What are the challenges you face to allowing God’s Spirit to lead to the new birth of which Jesus speaks?

Comments

  1. This author has interrelated the four excerpts consistently and well. I feel the bible lesson is meant to do just this, and welcome this and her questions which resonate in my experience.
    Judith

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