Journeying through the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings, Commentary, and Discussion Questions for March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent
First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
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.
Worth Noting: I always wondered “Why put a snake on a pole?” Turns out the Hebrew in verse 8 above refers to a seraph (NRSV “poisonous snake”), referencing a divine-serpent being honored throughout the ancient Near East and Egypt. The plural form, seraphim, eventually became an order of angels. Does your religious tradition include angels assisting humans? Devils tempting them?
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south. . .
17 Some were sick through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
20 he sent out his word and healed them,
and delivered them from destruction.
21 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind.
22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.
Worth Noting: Verse 1 says it all: Give thanks for the LORD’s steadfast love. Any thanks is rooted in an attitude of humility, of vulnerability, recognizing an inability to achieve something on one’s own.
Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
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 toward 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.
Worth Noting: Faith is an act of trust; here, an act of trust in God. Is an act of faith a “work” in the sense of verse 9? What if the faith that is spoken of is the faith-fulness of Jesus, not the faith of any of his followers?
Isn’t it striking that God has prepared beforehand the good works that are to be our way of life (Ephesians 2:10)?
Gospel: John 3:14-21
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.”
CONNECTING WITH THE SCRIPTURES
Entering into the Scriptures
Ephesians was probably written about the same time as the Gospel of John, and perhaps in the same general region. While they have different emphases, both hold faith to be the key to the Christian life. That puts great emphasis on what it means to “have faith.”
Two weeks ago, the Lectionary included the story of the covenant between Abraham and God in which Abraham was assured that if he did trust God enough to have marital relations with his aging, apparently infertile wife, they would have children. Abraham and Sarah trusted in God, had faith in God’s covenant and gave birth to and raised Isaac. The selection from the Gospel of John comes while Jesus is dialoguing with Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees. Jesus is promising Nicodemus that if he follows Jesus he will have eternal life. John records instances when Nicodemus does stand up for Jesus, even assisting at his burial.
Biblical faith, we suggest, has an action (if not works) component. We have faith and trust in God’s word that when we live a certain way we will enjoy abundant life. Perhaps one’s deepest faith holds to the idea that abundant life begins now, in the relationships that flow from the life well-lived.
“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”
We are accustomed to thinking of Lent as a time for penitence and humility: acknowledging sins, making amends for them as we can, and resolutely facing a sinless future. Thanksgiving does not seem to fall into Lent’s purview, but the psalm selected demands thanksgiving as our first prayer.
On reflection, we realize that one of the recommended practices of Lent is the regular examination of our life. Many do an “examen” each day, typically just before sleep. In an examen, before considering one’s failings during the day, one contemplates the gifts received and the moments God’s presence was especially evident. In that way, one starts from an attitude of thanksgiving.
As the author of Ephesians points out, a gift is not deserved. Through regular examens, we deepen the realization that all of life is an undeserved gift. Our talents, our shortcomings, our interests, our relationships – everything about our life is a gift. If all is gift, and all undeserved, we recognize how weak, how vulnerable, how fragile we must be and put our failures into a new perspective, the failings of a vulnerable, fragile soul.
Questions for Discussion
Do your Lenten practices include extra doses of thanksgiving?
How do you understand faith: Is it only the interior assent to a set of beliefs? How about if we considered it the willingness of a soldier to follow a general’s orders: Any difference?
Jesus says he came to give abundant life (John 10:10). How could a life following a Jesus who encouraged giving everything away and ended up crucified by the national authorities possibly be abundant?
To download a PDF version of this week’s Journeying, click here.
Dennis Haugh has enjoyed working with adult seekers for over 20 years. He aims to engage academic and general audiences for the New Testament. To hone his skills and burnish his credentials, he earned his PhD in Biblical Studies in the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology joint program. He appreciates any correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org.