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Wrestling with the Word, episode 106: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (March 20, 2011) March 15, 2011

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Second Sunday in Lent
Many stories tell about a journey. The Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic is about Gilgamesh’s long journey to attain immortality. Homer’s The Odyssey relates the trials and tribulations of Odysseus as he travels home from the Trojan battlefield. J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings dramatically relates the journey of Frodo and his friends toward Mount Doom where they will destroy the One Ring that can destroy Middle Earth. Even modern movies like Little Miss Sunshine and Trains, Planes, and Automobiles wind their amusing anecdotes around journeys. The Bible, too, has its stories of journeys to tell. Some of them are regular pilgrimages, as in our psalm for the day. Others are world-changing events like that of Abraham and Sara in our first lesson. And the gospel story about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is just out of this world! Strikingly, the journey of all of them is founded upon faith-inspired trust in God, and the destination is blessing, wholeness, and life.

Download or listen to Wrestling with the Word, episode 106: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A.


Psalm 121
While the original purpose of this psalm is not certain, its beauty and comforting expressions give it a place of favor among devout people of all times. The first verses introduce the psalm as a dialogue. Verse 1 comes from the lips of a person about to begin a journey. The speaker looks to the mountains ahead, awesome to behold yet full of potential danger. An imminent journey across and through their heights causes the worshiper to ask about the source of “help” or “strength” on the way. Unlike the answer to a similar question regarding wisdom (Job 28:12, 20), the response here provides the traveler hope and promise: “help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (v. 2). Whoever speaks that answer—either the worshiper or a priest—the following verses appear to flow from the lips of a priest. The journey itself is often assumed, therefore, to be the homeward trip from the temple in Jerusalem following a pilgrim’s required visit. It is also possible that the setting takes place outside the home of the pilgrims as they set out for the temple. In that case, the answer might come from a Levite. In any case, the Lord who will be the “help” will remain constantly alert to keep the traveler from harm (vss. 3-4). YHWH will protect and guard the pilgrim, even from the blistering sun and the mysterious moon (vss. 5-6). Even beyond the immediate journey, the Lord will maintain diligence on the worshiper’s behalf in every place and at all times.


Genesis 12:1-4a (1-9)
God calls Abraham and Sarah to relinquish their worldly security (home and family connections) in order to journey to a new land of God’s promise and become a source of blessing to others in their midst and beyond.

The call of Abraham recorded here occurs after the long pre-history of Genesis 3 through 11.  The final chapter of the pre-history tells of the Tower of Babel (vv. 1-9) and the subsequent judgment of God by which resulted in the diversity of languages and in the scattering of the people.

The pericope is assigned to the Yahwist (J). However, verses 4b-5 are clearly P.  The Yahwist addresses Israel in the time of David and Solomon (tenth century B.C.) in order to answer two questions:  (1) How did we get to be the great people we are? (2) What is our function? The priestly school (P) was at work for centuries, but its defining work and editorial hand were especially active in the sixth century B.C.

Key Words
V. 1:  lek-lekā  mē’artsekā … ’el-hā’ārets  ’ašer ’arekkā = “Go from your land … to the land which I will show you”:  The land where Abram resided was somewhere in Mesopotamia:  according to the last two verses of chap. 11 (which is P rather than J) Abram’s father left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan, but settled for a while in Haran.

V. 2.  wa’agaddelā šemekā = “so that I might make your name great”:  Note the contrast between this verse and the Yahwist’s story of the Tower of Babel where the people tried to make their own name great (11:4).

V. 3.  mebārekêkā ûmeqallelkā = “those who bless you and the one who curses you”:  While some mss. make both participles plural, the contrast between the many who will bless and the exceptional one who will curse is likely intentional.

V. 3.  wenibrekû bekā kōl mišpechôt hā’adāmâ = “and by you all the families of the land will consider themselves blessed (or be blessed”):  The niph‘al of the verb nibrecan be used as a simple passive or as a reflexive, thus the alternate translations; nibrekû mišpechôt hā’adāmâ occurs also at 28:14 as God’s promise to Jacob.  The clause appears elsewhere but in a wider context at Genesis at 18:18 (“nations of the earth”); 22:18 (“nations of the earth”); 26:4 (“nations of the earth”).  Note Gal. 3:8 where Paul cites this promise as “the gospel preached beforehand to Abraham.”  For examples of Abraham and his descendants serving as a source of blessing even when the formula does not appear, see 30:27 (Laban to Jacob), 30 (Jacob to Laban).


Romans 4:1-5 [8], 13-17
The righteousness that comes from God was reckoned to Abraham on the basis of his faith, and the promise given to Abraham–that he and his descendants would inherit the world–is given to everyone through the righteousness of faith.

Having demonstrated that all people–Jews and Gentiles–are guilty before God (chapters 1-2), Paul demonstrated in chapter 3 that all are justified by grace as a gift.  Toward the end of chapter 3, he then raises the issue of works and contrasts them with faith.  Now using Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews himself, as his example, Paul drives home his point.


John 3:1-17
In response to the confession of Nicodemus that Jesus comes from God, Jesus indicates that in order to participate in the kingdom of God and in the salvation he offers, one must be born anew.

According to John, Jesus went up to Jerusalem three times during his life. This encounter with Nicodemus occurred during the first visit at the time of the Passover. Many people had already come to believe in Jesus because of the signs he performed, but Jesus, we are told, did not entrust himself to them … for he himself knew what was in people (2:24-25).

Key Words
V. 3.  ean mē tis gennēthē anōthen = “unless someone is born from above”:  The issue is not simply another birth but an existence based on heavenly origins. The statement is explained further by v. 13 where “the Son of man” is identified as the one who descended from heaven; see John 1:1-14.

V. 3.  tēn basileian tou theou = “the kingdom of God”:  After this initial reference to the kingdom, a synoptic emphasis, John usually talks about “life” rather than the kingdom. The question of kingdom and kingship will occur again in the trial by Pilate (19:36).

V. 5. “unless one of born of water and the Spirit … born of the flesh … born of the Spirit … born of the Spirit”:  As Jesus himself received the Holy Spirit (see John 1:33), proving that Jesus is the Son of God (1:34), so Jesus announces the means by which others can become born from above and see/enter the kingdom of God with him.

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. Appropriating this message to one’s life 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) (Creation) might be saved (sōthē) through him”:  The work of God in Jesus is described here in the third person; at 12:47, Jesus speaks in the first person about 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). Luke’s narrative about the message of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds includes the title “a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).