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Wrestling with the Word, episode 13: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B (March 22, 2009) February 28, 2009

Posted by fostermccurley in Wrestling With The Word podcast.
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Fourth Sunday in Lent

The lessons for this day move from small beginnings to a big ending, from quite local scenes to universal ones. What holds them together is the saving work of God. God responds to cries for help by people in distress—no matter what the cause—and ultimately performs acts of salvation that reach out to people who do not even know who God is.

Couched in each passage is a special protocol: How do we respond to God’s gracious deeds? In thanksgiving? In faith? In good deeds? Actually, all of the above.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 13: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B.


Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This psalm is both a liturgy of thanksgiving used in connection with the sacrifice of thanksgiving (vss. 1-32. 22) and a hymn or poem (vss. 33-43). The thanksgiving liturgy reiterates a variety of distressful situations in the life of the community: desert wanderers like caravan traders (vss. 4-5), prisoners (vss. 10-12), and the sick (vss. 17-18). In each case, the Lord delivered people from their distress after they had cried to the Lord for help (vss. 6, 13, 19, 28). The refrain calling for thanks (vv. 8-9, 15-16, 31-32) appears in our selected portion at vv. 21-22. Although the situation in these verses might sound like the wilderness event at Numbers 21:4-9, the situation is more general than that. Its message is that however often the people cried to the Lord for help, the Lord saved them from their fears. For that dependable response, the psalm calls on the people to give thanks through a meal (“thanksgiving sacrifices”) shared in the community of the faithful.


Numbers 21:4-9
God directs the people of Israel in spite of themselves and even against their wills toward the accomplishment and fulfillment of his promise.
God confronts the redeemed people on the frustrating road between salvation and fulfillment–judging them when they reject the gift of deliverance and preserving them when they look to the Lord in faith.

In some of Israel’s creeds (Josh. 24:2-13; see also Exod. 19:3-5), the wilderness tradition appears between the exodus and the entrance into the Promised Land. Canonically, the wilderness tradition occurs in Exodus 16-18 and picks up again after the Sinai tradition (Exod. 19–Num. 10) at Numbers 11. Throughout this material the people of Israel “murmur” against the Lord and against Moses for bringing them into this wasteland where there is neither water (Exod. 15:22-24; 17:2-3) nor food (Exod. 16:2-3). As the journey continues, they complain about the non-protein diet (Num. 11); about the authority of Moses (Num. 12); about enemies (Num. 14); again about Moses’ authority (Num. 16); again about lack of water (Num. 20). So outstanding is their murmuring that it became part of the history of the people, remembered even in their hymns (Ps. 78:17-20; 106:13-33).

Biblical Allusions
OT: Deuteronomy 8:11-20; 2 Kings 18:4
Apoc:    Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-7
NT: John 3:14-15; 1 Corinthians 10:9-10

Key Words
V. 4.  wattiqtsar nepheš hā‘ām baddarek = “the breath of the people became short at the journey”:  When the verb hiqtsît is used with nepheš (here) or rûach, both of which can mean “breath,” the expression means “reaching one’s limit of endurance” (cf. Job 21:4; Judg. 10:16; 16:16; Mic. 2:7; Zech. 11:8). At Judg. 10:16 and Zech. 11:8 the object of utter discouragement is introduced by the preposition b, as here. Thus, the people became discouraged not simply “on the way” but with/at the journey itself.

V. 6.  hannechāšîm hasserāphîm = “fiery serpents”:  One never knows what troubles one will find in the wilderness desert. The word is simply hannāchāš = “the serpent” in vv. 7 and 9. What Moses makes in v. 8 is simply a sārāph and in v. 9 a nechaš hannechōšet.

V. 8. asēh lekā sārāph wesîm ’ōthō ‘al-nēs = “Make for yourself a serpent and place it on a standard”: The translation of nēs as “pole” is understandable, but it would be the only time in the Hebrew Bible. Normally the word is translated as “standard,” “sign,” or “signal” (often in war). The LXX translates the Hebrew word with the Greek sēmeion = “sign,” and that might have been a reason the passage caught the attention of the evangelist John.

V. 9. wehibbît ‘el-nechaš hannechōšet wāchāy = ‘and one looked at the serpent of bronze, one would live.” The author(s) of the Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-7 make clear that it is not the visible sign that “saved,” but “you, the Savior of all.”


Ephesians 2:1-10
Because Christians have died to sins and the way of life connected to sin, God makes us alive together with Christ so that we are what God has made us, created in Jesus Christ for good works.

This epistle by an unknown follower of Paul was probably written prior to A.D. 95. Though following Paul’s theology in many ways, the author makes some modifications, including the notion presented here that salvation by grace is a past act rather than one belonging to the present and future. In addition, that the good works to which the Christian is called have been prepared beforehand (v. 10) is a departure from Pauline theology. Nevertheless, the powerful contribution of this author is his understanding of the church as universal rather than simply a congregation (as in Paul). The lordship of Christ over the universe stands hand in hand with his description of the church.

Vss. 1-3: What is death and what is it like
Vss. 4-7:  What life is and what it’s like
Vss. 8-10: Amazing grace at work

Key Words
V. 2: kata ton aiōna tou kosmou toutou = “according to the aeon of this world”: Much of the distinction in the NT is not a matter of place but of time. See Romans 12:1-2.

V. 2. kata ton archonta tēs exousias tou aeros, tou pneumatos tou nun energountos = “according to the ruler of the authority of the air”: In the period of the NT writers, the devil, alias Satan, had authority over the present age. He promised to give it to Jesus if the Son of God would worship him (Luke 4:6). The authority of Jesus as God’s Son, however, was more powerful than that of Satan, and so Jesus was able to defeat the armies of Satan, the unclean spirits.


John 3:14-21
Just as the uplifted serpent served as God’s means of saving the lives of the rebellious people of Israel, so the crucified and resurrected Son of Man is God’s means of drawing the world to the cross to receive the gift of eternal life.

The pericope is set within the context of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus. Jesus responds to each of Nicodemus’ questions with an answer that begins “Truly, truly I say to you” (vv. 3, 5, 11). Scholars differ on how far to extend the third response. RSV, for example, concludes the quotation at the end of v. 15, while NRSV continues it through v. 21.

Key Words
V. 14.  kai kathōs Mōysēs hypsōsen ton ophin en tē  erēmō, houtōs hypsōthēnai dei ton huion tou anthrōpou = “and as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”:  The “lifting up” is an important expression in John’s Gospel. Here, by comparison to the visible raising of the bronze serpent, and at 8:28, the verb appears to refer to the crucifixion. At 12:32, 34 the word refers to the resurrection/ascension. Strikingly, the word dei = “must” is used here, as it is in the synoptic tradition, regarding the necessity of the suffering and resurrection of the Son of Man (see Mark 8:31). The result of looking at the uplifted serpent is “life” in Num. 21:9 and “salvation” at Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-7.

V. 16. houtōs gar ēgapēsen ho theos ton kosmon, ōste ton huion ton monogenē edōken = “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”: The tense of the verb for “loved” signifies a once for all act. It thus points to the crucifixion rather than to a more general affection for the created world. Believing this message results in “eternal life.”

V. 17. “For God sent the Son into the world (eis ton kosmon), not to condemn the world (ton kosmon), but that the world (ho kosmos) might be saved (sōthē) through him”:  While the work of God in Jesus is described here in the third person, at 12:47, Jesus speaks in the first person of his purpose in the same terms: not to condemn but to save the world. At 1 John 4:14 the author writes similarly: “the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world (sōtēra tou kosmou). Recall that according to the angel’s words to Joseph, the name of the baby Mary will bear will be “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

V. 19. “the light has come into the world”: John’s use of “light” to describe the Son’s appearance begins at 1:5-9, continues here through v. 21, and comes to particular focus at 8:12 and 9:5: “I am the light of the world” where, as here, the contrast is with “darkness.” The opening words of John’s Gospel “In the beginning” connect with Genesis 1:1-5 where “light” is the first creation of God in the midst of the chaos of darkness.

V. 21. “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his/her works have been worked in God”: At 6:28 the disciples ask Jesus what they must do to “work the works of God”; Jesus tells them that “the work of God is to believe in” him whom God sent. At 9:4 “the works of God” focus on the “light” that is Jesus for the man who had spent his life in darkness (blind). Here the contrast is the realm in which people do bad deeds or good deeds. The wicked perform in darkness so as not to be seen, but the disciples of Christ come into the light so that others may see clearly that the deeds they do are done in God.