OLD TESTAMENT: Genesis 12:1-4a
Remember that the importance of Genesis is that it makes the first claims about God’s character, God’s relationship to the world, and about God’s relationship to humanity. It is, then, the very foundation of our beliefs. Genesis reminds us that God’s work does not occur in a vacuum, but is shaped by the world and the historical setting.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis focus primarily on humanity, which proved to be a pretty rebellious lot. First we get kicked out of some metaphorical garden, then we hear tales of deceit and murder. Then a massive flood ravishes us and wipes most of us out. So our answer is to build a tower to get up there and see exactly what God is doing. We don’t start well.
So, in the twelfth chapter, as what we call the “Patriarchal History” begins, there is a shift to a focus on one particular family. In the passage that we read, interpreters usually consider vs. 1-3 to provide the key for the rest of Genesis. All of a sudden, the camera zooms in to a single family of nomads in a small town in Mesopotamia and, finally, to a single individual. This is where the history of Israel begins. And although Abram will never actually see his future, his response will shape it. The responses focus on nationhood and blessing for the entire family and others through them. The thing is, Abram is called to leave (in order of intimacy) his country, his clan, his home and journey to whatever it is that God will reveal to him. But the divine promise will begin during Abraham’s lifetime. And, further…those who treat Israel in life-giving ways will also receive a blessing.
Abram is chosen to be the one through whom God’s blessing is showered upon the whole world. But in order for this to happen, Abram is told to leave what he knows, to in effect sever ties and go to a new place. (We at this point immediately jump to what that would mean for us.) But remember that Abram’s family was nomadic. They probably didn’t really have a concept of home anyway. And there really wasn’t a family, to speak of—Abram had probably long ago outlived his parents and he had no children. So what was he leaving? Maybe God was calling him away from hopelessness and loneliness and finally showing him purpose, showing him home.
And the Lord promises that Abram will not be alone. And, more than that, God promises blessing. No longer is this just one person or one family; it is the conduit to God showering blessing throughout the world. And yet, Abram was as unlikely a candidate as a candidate can be. For one thing he was getting on in years. And, besides that, this old married couple had no children. Sarah was considered barren. How in the world could she produce offspring?
So, Abram is being called into the unknown and is told to leave everything he knows behind. Talk about wandering in the wilderness! It’s a great Lenten passage. How many of us would leave behind everything that we are and everything that we have and enter the unknown as a blank slate on which God can begin to draw a masterpiece? Abram is called to be a blessing, the Hebrew Parshas Lech Lecha. It becomes an integral part of the Genesis story and is used eighty-eight times in the book. A blessing is a gift. It involves every sphere of existence. It is more than what we 21st century hearers have allowed it to be. It is not payment for a life well-lived. “Being blessed” is being recreated. (For Abram, this meant moving from a life of nomadic purposelessness to being the “father of a great nation” and, thousands of years later, the patriarch of three world religions.) It takes time. I think to be a blessing means that one enters the story. God calls, God promises, and God walks with us. That is how God is revealed. But the blessing doesn’t come and the blessing doesn’t continue unless one enters the story. God calls, God promises, and God blesses.
- What is your response to this short passage?
- What does this speak to you about calling?
- So, what does that mean to you to be a “blessing”? How do we misconstrue that meaning?
- How does this passage speak to us in our Lenten journey?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The main part of the fourth chapter of Romans revolves around the idea that Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, are now found to be part of Abraham’s offspring. Now this in and of itself was quite a stretch. After all Abraham was considered a unique part of what it meant to be a person of the Jewish faith. But Paul is claiming that the promises and blessings of Abraham extend to ALL people. But the audience that Paul was addressing was as diverse as our society is. They all grew up with “acceptable norms” that Paul was now telling them was not even necessarily the way of God. So, all these things that they thought would make them “right” with God didn’t really matter at all. It had to be hard for them to hear.
The assumption had always been (and probably is for many hearers today) that Abraham was blessed because he followed God, because he DID was God told him to do. But Paul is now contending that it had nothing to do with what Abraham did or what laws he followed but the fact that he had faith in God. God is not waiting around for us to do something; God blesses us as children of God.
Paul’s claim means that Abraham was not made right before God because he had rightly observed the laws. The right relationship was not something that Abraham had earned. It was freely offered from God because Abraham believed in what God had promised and what God offered. It wasn’t even BECAUSE Abraham believed. It was just that Abraham’s belief meant that he was in right relationship. Paul is almost contending that our belief is a fruit, rather than a reason for, a right relationship with God. The right relationship is a free and undeserved gift. (Sounds like grace to me!) For Paul, God’s goodness was manifest in Christ and yet was also there all along. And God’s goodness was there for all, whether or not they followed the rules. Faith cannot be defined; it must be lived. This was a totally new way of looking at faith for these hearers. Who are we kidding? It’s new for many of us too!
An important part of the Lenten journey is learning to reject old patterns and old ways of being that keep us from accepting God’s gift of grace and new life. But before we reflect on one such challenge, Paul’s challenge to the law, let us first think about how difficult and challenging it is to change something more mundane; something like crossing the street.
If one was raised in North America one learned, as a child, to cross the street looking first to the left, and then to the right. Why? In North America cars, by law, drive on the right hand side of the road. So, when we travel to the British Isles, something that is second nature to us — crossing, can become dangerous and life threatening. When stepping off the curb we must first look to our right lest we are hit by oncoming traffic. In London they recognize this is a major problem for foreign visitors. If you look down while standing at an intersection you will often see stenciled, in large white letters, the admonition “LOOK RIGHT.”
The old way of thinking about Abraham, Paul tells us, is to think that Abraham was honored and praised by God by his works. Paul wanted people to look in a different direction. Look not to the works of the law, but to faith. (From commentary on this passage by Lucy Lind Hogan, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=3/20/2011, accessed 15 March, 2011.)
- What is your response to this short passage?
- What, for you, is “righteousness”, or being in “right relationship” with God?
- What would change if we viewed our belief as a fruit of right relationship rather than a prerequisite?
GOSPEL: John 3: 1-17
Note that Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, a Sanhedrin, under scrutiny, seeks out Jesus. This is, obviously, a good thing. But he does it under the cloak of night. (“Those who prefer darkness to light”) He cannot let on that he is following Jesus—giving in to this rebel, this radical. But he publicly acknowledges Jesus—as rabbi (teacher), as “from God”, and as a leader of the community. In this passage, the Greek word anothen means both “from above” or “again” or “anew”. So this passage becomes ambiguous. To be born anothen speaks both of a time of birth (again) and a place of birth (above). It implies that the Kingdom of God is both temporal and spatial. But Nicodemus focuses on one meaning (again) and protests that that is impossible. But Jesus brings about new images, including those of water and the spirit (implying Baptism).
When you read this, you do sense that Nicodemus must have been a good teacher. He was astute and knew what questions to ask. He was diligent as he studied and explored to get to the truth. But how could he believe this circular reasoning that Jesus was espousing? Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Nicodemus and Jesus had completely different understandings of what “believe” was. Nicodemus had, after all, accepted Jesus’ propositions. He had probably even taught it. But Jesus was not asking for people to believe what he did or believe what he said.
There is a difference between believing Christ and believing IN Christ. Believing IN means that you enter into relationship, that you trust with everything that you are, with everything that is your life. It is much more visceral than Nicodemus was really read to accept. Nicodemus wanted to understand it within the intellectual understanding of God that he had. But Jesus was telling him that there was a different way. Jesus was inviting, indeed almost daring, Nicodemus to believe in this new way, to turn his life, his doubts, his heart, and even his very learned mind over to God.
“How can this be?” Those are Nicodemus’ last words in this passage, which sort of makes him a patron saint for all of us who from time to time get stuck at the foot of the mountain, weighed down by our own understandings of who God is, without the faintest idea of how to begin to ascend. But there’s Jesus. “Watch me. Put your hand here. Now your foot. Don’t think about it so hard. Just do as I do. Believe in me. And follow me….this way!
Jesus wants Nicodemus to see the difference between dead religion and living faith. To borrow an analogy from Jewish theologian Martin Buber, he wants him to see the difference between reading a menu and having dinner. Until you are born of God, you will always be an observer rather than a participant in the spiritual quest.
Yet the “menu” offered by religion may look so intriguing that the feast of transforming faith can be missed. Menus describe. They communicate information about the meals served by a particular restaurant. This is what religion does. It describes what God is like, what doctrines should be believed, what rituals should be practiced. Nicodemus had religion. As a Pharisee, he had been reading a menu for years, so preoccupied with knowledge about God that he had missed the joy that knowledge of God can bring. (From From Sacrifice to Celebration: A Lenten Journey, by Evan Drake Howard, p. 19)
- What is your response to this short passage?
- What does the term “born again” mean for you? What meaning is conveyed with these two meanings.
- What is the difference between believing Christ and believing in Christ?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Blessing is one of the ways that God makes the presence of God known here and now. (Joan Chittister, in Listen with the Heart: Sacred Moments in Everyday Life, p. 8)
There are few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into [God’s] hands and let themselves be formed by grace. (St. Ignatius of Loyola, 16th century)
Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair. (G. K. Chesterton)
My heart’s eyes behold your Divine Glory! From whence does my help come? My help comes from You, who created heaven and earth. You strengthen and uphold me, You, who are ever by my side. Behold! You who watch over the nations will see all hearts awaken to the Light. For You are the Great Counselor; You dwell within all hearts, that we might respond to the Universal Heart—Like the sun, that nourishes us by day, like the stars that guide the wayfarer at night. In You we shall not be afraid of the darkness, for You are the Light of my life. May You keep us in our going out and our coming in from this time forth and forevermore. Amen. (“Psalm 121”, in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill, p. 269)