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Introduction To The Scripture For The Second Sunday in Lent - Year A
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Second Sunday in Lent - Year A

     Note: Some churches celebrate the Transfiguration on this 
     date rather than on the Last Sunday of Epiphany.  See 
     Transfiguration Year A for the introduction to the
     scripture.

     
GENESIS 12:1-4a          The call of Abram (or Abraham as he later became
known) to leave his homeland and migrate to an unknown country is one of
the crucial events of the Old Testament.  Whether the stories surrounding
this migration are tribal legends or actual events, there is no doubt that
they became a formative part of Israel's faith history.  Later generations
would look back to this patriarch and see in Abram's obedience to the
divine summons the initial response to God's covenant with Israel.


PSALM 121                This psalm has been sung in paraphrase form by
many generations of Scots and Canadians.  The latter paraphrase by the
Marquis of Lome, Governor-General of Canada 1879-1883, while resident in
Rideau Hall, Ottawa, is better known to us as the hymn "Unto the hills
around do I lift up my longing eyes".  Its message is simple and powerful:
God watches over us as permanently as the mountains mark the horizon.


ROMANS 4:1-5,13-17       As a rabbi well trained in the religious
traditions of Israel, Paul cited the call of Abraham as evidence that
obedient response to God in faith is the key to Israel's religious
heritage.  Paul based his conviction that we are given a fight relationship
with God (justifed is the term he used) by similarly responding to God in
faith.  Obeying the law was not sufficient, he argued.  Faith must come
first before there can be any obedience to the law.


JOHN 3:1-17              John regarded this meeting between Jesus and
Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, as one of the most significant events in
the theological conflict of Christianity with Judaism.  Here he states the
real purpose of Jesus' life and ministry.  In many ways, the story
reiterates what Paul had said to the Romans: Faith in God's love so fully
revealed in Jesus, God's Son, is the only means of coming into a right
relationship with God and our neighbours in this global age.  Indeed, the
whole of the New Testament conveys a similar message for all the world.


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

GENESIS 12:1-4a   The call of Abram (or Abraham as he later became known)
to leave his homeland and migrate to an unknown country is one of the
crucial events of the Old Testament.  Apart from the sage itself, there are
sixty-five other references to him in the Hebrew scriptures, often in a
formulaic association with his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob. Genesis
11:31 states that Abram's father, Terah, had earlier migrated from Ur of
the Chaldeans, near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to
Haran in the upper Euphrates valley.  It was from Haran that Abram and his
nephew Lot migrated to Canaan (12:4b).  

According to archeological and linguistic research, this migration
corresponds with the movement of Amorite tribes from the northern Arabian
desert in both directions southeast along the Tigris-Euphrates valley and
southwest into Canaan.  This also was the ancient trade route between east
and west along the Fertile Crescent.  One hypothesis holds that Abram may
have been a caravan merchant, although biblical evidence presents him only
as a pastoral chieftan.  He was thought to have been a contemporary of
Hammurapi, an identifiable historical monarch (ca.1750 BCE) in the
territory later known as Babylonia, and today as Iraq.

The biblical saga of Abram (11:27 - 25:11) is a composite of the Jahwist,
Elohist and Priestly documents in the Penteteuch.  The text lists as many
as twenty-two contacts with a wide variety of tribal groups and
individuals.  His change of name is explained in relation to the dialectal
*'ab-hammon,* "father of many."  This probably has more to do with his role
as the personification of the diverse Semitic clans subsequently united as
a confederate people known as Israelites.  Whether the stories surrounding
this migration are tribal legends or actual events, there is no doubt that
they became a formative part of Israel's faith history.  Subsequent
generations would look back to this first of Israel's patriarchs and see in
Abram's obedience to the divine summons the initial response to God's
covenant with  Israel.  
     
NT authors name Abram as a hero second to only Moses.  There are as many
references to him in the NT as in the OT.  Even today the religious
significance of this biblical figure for all Middle Eastern cultures cannot
be ignored.  Jews, Christians and Moslems all regard him as their spiritual
progenitor.  In this regard, while paying tribute to the late King Hussein
of Jordan, the former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke
of "all the children of Abraham."  


PSALM 121   Few psalms are so well-known, mostly because it is has
been sung in paraphrase form by many generations.  Two different
paraphrases have been included many modern hymn books.  The Scottish
Psalter of 1650 gave a version which is better known in Scotland.  John
Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll and as Marquis of Lorne the Governor General
of Canada 1878-83, wrote the Canadian favourite,"Unto the hills around do I
lift up my longing eyes."  It is said that his inspiration came from the
Rocky Mountains seen from a distance as he trekked toward them in wagon
train beyond the railway line.  Another anecdote relates the inspiration to
the Gatineau Hills seen from Rideau Hall, the governor general's home in
Ottawa.  They reminded this homesick Scot of his boyhood haunts among the
highlands of western Scotland.
     
The message of the biblical psalm is simple and powerful: God watches over
us as permanently as the mountains mark the horizon.  Originating also as
an antiphonal hymn, the psalm may have been sung by pilgrims approaching
the temple mount among the holy hills of Jerusalem after a perilous journey
through territory infested with brigands.  The ancient road up from Jericho
in the Jordan valley was just such a place.  Vss. 3-4 reflect the terror of
a sleepless sentry lest he doze while on watch at night.
     
This psalm excels as poetry in any language.  The Hebrew has a repetitive
parallelism rising to a climactic affirmation of faith.  It opens with a
plea for divine help and the response rings throughout, "the Lord is your
keeper." In an ever insecure world, the words in any version touch the
deepest spiritual chords in every human heart.  Even in residences where
senior citizens worship, the heart warms to hear it sung by those whose
trust in God remains strong as their years decline.
     

ROMANS 4:1-5, 13-17   As a rabbi well trained in the religious traditions
of Israel, Paul cited the call of Abraham as evidence that obedient
response to God in faith is the key to Israel's religious heritage.  Paul
based his conviction that we are given a  right relationship with God
(*justifed* is the term he used) by similarly responding to God in faith. 
Obeying the law was not sufficient, he argued.  Faith must come first
before there can be any obedience to the law.
     
Paul also introduced a unique triangular metaphor of the relationship
between faith, works and righteousness thus clarifying for the Romans the
distinctive Christian gospel.  This he traced back to the ancestral faith
of Abraham in contrast to the traditional Jewish understanding of
righteousness resulting from obedience to the law.
     
In a diagrammatic image, faith forms the apex of the triangle while works
and righteousness form the base.  The Jewish concept of righteousness
included only the latter two base elements.  Even Abraham was "justified by
works," (vs. 1) according to their view.  Paul had a different
interpretation of scripture: "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to
him as righteousness" (vs.3)  This became for Paul "the righteousness of
faith" (vs.13)  In other words, for Christians, whatever their background,
righteousness and the works that follow from it proceed only from faith.  
     
Nowhere in this passage does Paul introduce the name of Jesus.  It is
clear, however, that while Abraham is the exemplar of this new relationship
between faith, righteousness and the works of the law, his understanding of
the gospel about Jesus Christ is very much in his mind as we read in the
immediately preceding passage (3:21-31).  There he had emphasized the
sinfulness of all humanity, an assertion which could well have distressed
Jewish members of his audience who clung to their ancient scriptural
traditions.
     
We should also recognize the changes in the meaning of our English verb,
"to believe."  Its use in mediaeval and Elizabethan times conveyed the
sense of trust in a person, loyalty or commitment to a person.  That is the
sense in which Paul and all other biblical authors used its Greek
equivalent, *pisteuo* when speaking of believing in God or in Jesus Christ. 
Since the time of Hobbes, Locke and Mills in the 17th, 18th and 19th
centuries, it has gradually taken on the force of a proposition, "to
believe that ...."  In the 1959 edition of *Chambers Encyclopedia,* the
article on "Belief" states, "what we actually believe, in the strictness of
the language, is always a proposition or set of propositions.  Of these,
creeds are composed." (Quoted in Smith, Wilfrid Cantwell, *History and
Belief* Charlottesville: Virginia University Press, 1977, p.49; n.30,
p.109.) 


JOHN 3:1-17   This passage is almost too familiar for effective
preaching to our usual audiences.  Even we ourselves have deaf ears to what
John is saying as he moves into the heart of his gospel story.  In a new
book, *The Hidden Jesus: A New Life,* (St. Martin's Press) Donald Spoto has
written, "All human discourse is metaphor...  so any utterance about God
must necessarily be provisional and incomplete, limited by the structures
of language and the ideologies that constitute culture."  The metaphors in
this passage with which we are so very familiar, perhaps, are "born again"
and "God so loved the world...."  Yet this is one of the great spiritual
discourses of all time.  Why?
     
John regarded this meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, a leader of the
Jews, as one of the most significant events in the theological conflict of
Judaism with Christianity.  This conflict had reached a climax in most
communities where Christians and Jews intermingled within the decade
previous to the writing of the Fourth Gospel (the 80s CE).  Sometime during
that decade, at the Synod of Jamnia, the Pharisees had exerted their power
in Judaism.  The canon of the Hebrew scriptures had been closed and all
Jews who had followed the Jesus sect had been banished.  It may well be
that John regarded the Nicodemus tradition, which he alone recorded, as
representative (i.e. a metaphor) of some particular person or the party of
the Pharisees who was cautiously sympathetic toward the gospel rather than
angrily opposed, as the rabbinical tradition had become.
     
Another significant metaphor is the introduction of the *question* with
which Nicodemus came to Jesus (vs.2) "...for no one can do these signs that
you do...."  We quickly recognize the linkage between the story of the
wedding at Cana, "the first of his signs...  and revealed his glory; and
his disciples believed in him."  The six dramatic signs of John's Gospel
reveal the glory of God for those with eyes to see.  They set before Jesus'
disciples and everyone who saw or heard of them the crucial question of who
Jesus is.  Was he or was he not (and for us, is he or is he not) the Son of
God, the fleshly representative of the Transcendent and Invisible Creator
Spirit in whom the fullness of divine life became human? 

John's repeated use of the word *glory,* the traditional Hebrew term for
the divine Presence, states unequivocally this central truth of Christian
faith.  By the end of the lst century CE, this term in Hebrew, *shekinah,*
had become common in the rabbinical tradition as a metaphor for Yahweh.
     
A seemingly unimportant prepositional phrase in the Greek text leads us to
yet another metaphor with similar significance.  The NSRV throws some new
light on the question raised by Nicodemus in vs.2 "apart from the presence
of God."  The familiar rendition of this phrase reads: "unless God were
with him" or something similar (cf. NEB, TEV,  RSV, KJV).  The Greek
preposition *meta* in *met' autou* has the particular force of
*accompaniment* or *association*.  The same phrase appears Acts 10:38 in
Peter's message to the house of Cornelius, the Roman officer in Caesarea. 
There it is translated as in the commonly known versions of John 3:2, "for
God was with him."
     
But this is John's point.  He sought to make it clear to his community that
in Jesus God was indeed present with them, not only in the flesh during
Jesus' earthly ministry, but also in the Spirit after the Resurrection.  In
many ways, the story of Nicodemus emphasizes the same point that Paul made
in the passage above from Romans 4: Faith in God's love so fully revealed
in Jesus, God's Son, is the only means of coming into a right relationship
with God.
     
A fruitful exercise for a Bible study group might be to search this passage
for the many other metaphors which it contains and to express what they
mean for those who, like Nicodemus, are searching for a renewal of faith
during this Lenten season.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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