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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday In Lent - Year B
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures 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 Fourth Sunday In Lent - Year B


NUMBERS 21:4-9                         The Book of Numbers is a collection 
of stories from several sources written at different times telling what 
supposedly took place while the Israelites wandered in the desert between 
the Exodus from Egypt and their invasion of Canaan.  Because of its narrow 
point of view, it has been called a "Zionist tract."  This incident was 
told to reinforce the idea that God alone, not an object of superstition, 
was guiding the Israelites toward the Promised Land.


PSALM 107:1-3,17-22                    This beautiful litany of 
thanksgiving celebrates several instances when faith was tested and God's 
redemptive grace relieved distressed souls.  This particular segment 
focuses on the healing of a serious illness.


EPHESIANS 2:1-10                       If Paul did not write this letter, 
as many scholars believe, the author knew Paul's work intimately.  In 
lyrical phrases he proclaimed the central message of early church teaching 
and preaching.  Faith in Jesus Christ is the one means of salvation.  But 
this gift of God's gracious love is not simply to make us whole again.  
The more important thing is what we have been saved for: our way of life 
as Christians living in the real world.
 

JOHN 3:14-21                           John would have us believe that 
these words were spoken by Jesus himself during his secret conversation 
with a leading Pharisee, Nicodemus.  It is difficult to change this 
traditional view of some of the best known and most loved texts in the 
entire Bible.  More than likely, however, we have John's own analysis of 
what the coming of the Son of God really means.  Faith in Jesus Christ 
brings new life.  This life begins here and now, in this world; but it is 
also eternal, extending to life with God beyond death.  Judgment occurs 
not at some heavenly court that decides between good and evil, but here 
and now in the way we respond or reject the life offered to us through 
Jesus Christ.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:

NUMBERS 21:4-9   The Book of Numbers is a collection of stories from 
several sources written at different times telling what supposedly took 
place while the Israelites wandered in the desert between the Exodus from 
Egypt and their invasion of Canaan.  Because of its narrow point of view, 
it has been called a "Zionist tract." In reality this collection of 
theological narratives created for the purpose of determining who 
constituted the true Israel at a time when the covenant people had lost 
their sense of identity in the amalgam of the Persian empire.

The name of the book in English derives from the Greek title *Arithmoi* 
and arises from several passages referring to the numbers counted in a 
census of Israel.  The Hebrew name is *bemidbar* meaning *in the 
wilderness.* The whole book tells of Moses' leadership of the Israelites 
during their time in the wilderness under Yahweh's direction.  While 
exhibiting this thematic unity, the text also reveals some evidence of the 
four documentary sources of the Pentateuch, J.  E, P, and D.  Primarily, 
however, the book appears to come from the Priestly compilers of the post-
exilic text whose main purpose was to give identity to Yahweh's covenant 
people, Israel.  The value of Numbers lies not in any supposed historical 
accuracy, but in the way it tells the descendants of the ancient 
Israelites who they are from a theological point of view.

The incident recorded in this reading intended to reinforce the idea that 
Yahweh alone, not an object of superstition, was guiding the Israelites 
toward the Promised Land.  Despite being bitten by poisonous snakes, 
reputedly sent by Yahweh as a punishment for rejecting Yahweh's direction 
through Moses (vss. 6-7), the story has a theological meaning to: Yahweh 
protects the Israelites from harm.  The erection of the bronzed serpent 
seems very unusual in the light of the second commandment forbidding 
images of any kind (cf.  Ex. 20:4-6).  We now know, however, how 
meaningful totems and amulets can be for people with simple religious 
concepts.  Quite obviously, the symbol remained significant for the Jewish 
faith tradition for many centuries afterward because John 3:14 quotes 
Jesus as making reference to it.  The bronzed serpent on a pole remains a 
symbol of healing for the medical profession.


PSALM 107:1-3,17-22   This beautiful litany of thanksgiving celebrates 
several instances when faith was tested and God's redemptive grace 
relieved distressed souls.  After the opening summons to praise (vss. 1-
3), the particular segment contained in vss. 17-22 focuses on the healing 
of a serious illness.  

As a whole, the psalm recalls incidents of Israel's sojourn in the 
wilderness.  One exception appears to be in vss. 23-32 referring to a sea 
voyage on stormy waters.  Was this linked in some way to the parable of 
Jonah?  Some scholars regard it as an addition from the Hellenistic period 
(after 330 BCE) when sea-borne commerce had become common.  Vs. 3 refers 
directly to the widespread Diaspora of Israel that also indicates a 
relatively late date for the composition of the psalm.

Structurally, the psalm may or may not have been a unity.  The antiphonal 
responses of vss. 8, 15, 21 and 31 give evidence of it having been 
composed for congregational worship, possibly at the time when sacrifices 
were offered in the temple.  Of particular significance is the prophetic 
sense of social justice that permeates the psalm.  This emphasis recalls 
Isaiah 61:1-4.

Vss. 17-22 contains a very traditional view that sin causes sickness.  
That view still pervades many of the prayers people offer when unforeseen 
illness strikes.  Within limits, however, there is some truth to this 
point of view.  A recent report on global health pointed out that as many 
people in rich nations are malnourished, obese or diseased from excessive 
consumption of unhealthy foods as are found in poor countries where food 
is scarce, has little variety and provides poor nourishment.  In such 
instances, the Hebrew text *fools* instead of the English *sick* in vs. 17 
is thus quite appropriate.

The point these verses make, however, is that whatever the cause, Yahweh 
is the gracious healer of the sick.  Healing manifests Yahweh's steadfast 
love and for this the faithful are summoned to praise, make thank 
offerings and recount Yahweh's great acts of mercy in joyful songs.  This 
psalm is one of those songs.


EPHESIANS 2:1-10  Scholarly argument persists as to the authorship of the 
Letter to the Ephesians.  If Paul did not write it, the author certainly 
knew Paul's work intimately.  In lyrical phrases he proclaimed the central 
message of early church teaching and preaching.

John C.  Kirby in his *Ephesians, Baptism and Pentecost* proposed one of 
the more unique views of the letter's origin.  He believed that it began 
as a liturgy and sermon for Pentecost when new catechumens were baptized.  
Chapters 1-3 consist of a liturgy of praise modeled after the typical 
Jewish prayer called a *berakah.*  While the form has been taken over from 
Judaism, the content is thoroughly Christian.  Chapters 4-6 then contain a 
sermon admonishing the new converts to live a life worthy of their 
calling.  By skillful reworking, the two parts have been turned into a 
letter for wider distribution.

The passage selected for this reading celebrates the meaning of the 
resurrection for every believer.  Baptism in the apostolic tradition 
symbolized the dying and rising of the believer with Christ so that risen 
Christ was now alive in the faithful.  The old ways of living have ended; 
the new life in Christ has begun.  But this is just the beginning.  So 
much more is yet to come "seated with him in heavenly places in Christ 
Jesus" (vs. 6)  This obliquely refers to eternal life with Christ.  All 
this is the effect of God's grace, not our accomplishment through moral 
effort.  Yet there is a moral result, a new creation: "we are what he has 
made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works" (vs. 10).

A good deal of exposition will be needed to interpret the typically 
mythological metaphors of this passage for a modern congregation.  First 
century Christian theological thought gathered together Jewish, 
Hellenistic and other religious concepts.  The Jews did not have much 
about a personalized devil as an enemy of God until the 2nd or 3rd 
centuries BCE in their apocalyptic intertestamental literature.  The idea 
of a personalized demonic power of evil derived from the Persian 
Zoroastrian tradition.  Christian thought had incorporated it into their 
theology as an elemental power of the universe hostile to God.  People sin 
against God because this power, personalized as Satan or the devil, holds 
sway over our lives.  The result is our disobedience to the will of God, 
i.e.  *sin* or as here "passions of the flesh" (vs. 3) which effectively 
separate us from God and end in spiritual as well as physical death.  This 
is a thoroughly Pauline concept found throughout the apostle's letters.  
The idea still persists in literalist interpretations of the metaphors and 
in humorous attempts to avoid moral responsibility by saying, "the devil 
made me do it." 

Faith in Jesus Christ as the complete expression of God's mercy and grace 
is the one means of being saved from this destructive end.  But this gift 
of God's gracious love is not simply to make us whole again.  The more 
important thing is what we have been saved for, our way of life as 
Christians living in the real world and ultimately in life beyond death.

So what is grace for the modern mind as the antidote to spiritual death?  
Edward F.  Campbell, of McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, wrote in 
*The Oxford Companion to the Bible* (1993): "Grace names the undeserved 
gift that creates relationships and the sustaining, responding, forbearing 
attitude-plus-action that nurtures relationships.  Grace concerns the 
interaction between gracious person and graced recipient involving the 
wills of both." Campbell further describes how Paul developed this concept 
in his letters: "Paul's aim is to recapture the primacy of God's yearning 
search for humanity and the bestowal of power to become disciples.  Grace, 
*charis,* bestows gifts, *charismata.* Paul has moved God's initiative of 
relationship to such prominence that 'seeking God's favor' or 'imploring 
God's mercy' fades.  But Paul will go on to wrestling with the human 
response, the use made of God's gift, and the expectation of consequential 
thankful living." Nowhere is this characteristic Pauline understanding of 
grace so fully expressed as in this passage.


JOHN 3:14-21   Did Jesus really say these things?  John would have us 
believe that these words were spoken by Jesus himself during his secret 
conversation with a leading Pharisee, Nicodemus.  It is difficult to 
challenge this traditional view of some of the best known and most loved 
texts in the entire Bible.  More than likely, however, we have here John's 
own analysis of what the coming of the Son of God really means.  

John recorded a persistent tradition that Nicodemus was a secret follower 
of Jesus (John 19:38).  For John, Nicodemus represented the whole Jewish 
nation who were blind to the truth.  Yet in coming to Jesus secretly 
seeking a deeper understanding of who Jesus really is, he also represented 
certain of the Pharisees who did not oppose Jesus unique ministry and 
teaching.  Apparently a very wealthy man as well as a member of the 
supreme court of Israel, the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus later participated in 
Jesus' burial by bringing a great supply of spices to prevent the body 
from causing offensive odors while it decayed.  Thus, like all the rest of 
the disciples, he did not believe in or anticipate the resurrection.  As a 
Pharisee, nonetheless, he would have believed in resurrection as a 
messianic event.  Again, this points to John's theme that the fundamental 
issue Jesus' presence raised: Who is he?

The context of this reading proclaims that faith in Jesus Christ, the one 
who was crucified, brings new life.  This life is spiritual rather than 
merely physical.  It begins here and now, in this world; but it is also 
eternal, extending to life with God beyond death.   Judgment occurs not at 
some heavenly court assize that decides between a lifetime of good and 
evil behavior, but here and now in the way we respond or reject the life 
offered to us through Jesus Christ.  

The reference to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness (see above 
re Num. 21:4-9) symbolized the healing that faith brings.  Again, not a 
physical but a spiritual healing.  Similarly, the new birth of John 3:3-8 
is a spiritual re-creation initiated by the Spirit.  John 3:16 also 
reiterates the reality of the new spiritual life to be received through 
faith in what God has done in Jesus Christ.  This statement has become 
almost hackneyed by misuse as an aggressive evangelistic tool to the point 
of condemning anyone who has not experienced "rebirth." In fact, as he 
goes on to say in vss. 17-21, it was John's confession of faith that this 
is what happens when we respond to God's initiative as opposed to the 
condemnatory pushiness of the "have-you-been-saved?" style of evangelism.

As John states unequivocally, judgment has a prominent place in whatever 
response we make to the proclamation of the gospel.  Our decision becomes 
our judgment.  Nor can "salvation" be regarded as solely individual, but 
as a global phenomenon.  John Donne's prose poem "No man is an island, 
entire of itself, every man is a piece of a continent; a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a 
promontory were..." represents the essence of what vs. 17 states.  At the 
same time, each person may have the opportunity to hear and believe, as 
surely as did Nicodemus when he sought out Jesus at night.

Light and darkness play a significant part in Johannine thinking.  This 
carries over into the first of the Letters of John (1:5-2:29) that has 
caused scholars to associate the author of the Gospel and the Letters in 
various if ultimately indefinable ways.  The same metaphor also received 
considerable emphasis in the writings of the Essene sect of Qumran.  In 
this instance, judgment consists of refusing to respond to "the light" 
that Jesus Christ brings to the world.  Later, John's narrative (9:1-41) 
reiterates this same metaphor with considerable force regarding the man 
born blind whom Jesus healed and the Jewish authorities who challenged 
him.

The ultimate question to which each person must respond is: Have you seen 
the Light?  As vs. 21 put it, not our words, but our actions will be our 
answer. 

                         
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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