Reading Ramblings – March 12, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday in Lent – March 12, 2017

Texts: Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Context: How will God fulfill his promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 to save creation from sin through one of Eve’s offspring? He begins by choosing someone to work through – Abram. The question becomes, is Abram chosen because of his exceptional holiness? Or is Abram made righteous in his trust in the promises of God? Genesis 12 gives no indication as to why God chose Abram. But Abram believes God’s promises, and as Paul makes clear in Romans, this is the source of Abram’s righteousness. Psalm 121 sounds easily like a psalm that Abram could have composed, emphasizing his reliance on God – something critical as he leaves behind the security of an extended family/clan and strikes out on his own. Jesus points this out to Nicodemus – it is Jesus who will do the saving, and that saving is ours through our trust in God’s promises in Christ.

Genesis 12:1-9 – The call of Abram begins the formal history of God’s people. We are told in Genesis 11:31-32 that Abram’s father, Terah, was already in the process of moving his family towards Canaan. However they stop in Haran. Some scholars think that God first called Terah to follow his instructions, but Terah eventually is unable or unwilling to. Haran is far to the northwest of Ur, and far to the northeast of the land of Canaan. While we might speculate about Terah, there is no need to speculate about Abram. God instructs him, and Abram is obedient. Abram responds in faith to the promises of God, despite the fact that they are rather amazing (God will make Abram into a great nation when he is 75 years old and he and his wife are childless?!). It’s easy to want to make Abram into a saint, but the following chapters and verses don’t leave us this option. Abram is a sinful man, a fearful man. But he follows God, and this ultimately is credited to him as righteousness. Through him God begins to build the people from which his Messiah will come, and their story as well is one full of disobedience, but God is faithful always.

Psalm 121 – The first two verses of this psalm are in the first person, inquiring as to the source of her help. But she also knows the answer – her help comes from the Lord, and that help is reliable and more than adequate because this is the Lord who created the heavens and earth. At verse three the congregation joins in, affirming the speaker’s faithful answer and elaborating on the Lord’s reliability. God does not sleep and can ensure safety at all times and in all circumstances. Further, the Lord is a source of comfort and relief, protecting the speaker not simply from the heat of the sun, but from the exposure in the light of either the sun or the moon. The speaker can move to safety, escaping in the shadow the Lord provides. The psalm concludes with a general assertion of the Lord’s ability and intent to look after the speaker. This includes the days of our life now, but also extends into eternity.

Romans 4:1-8, 13-17 – Having backed his hearers – both Jewish and Gentile Christians – into a corner where neither can claim exemption from or fulfillment of God’s holy Law, and where all stand equally condemned and unable to save themselves from the sentence of the Law that is death, Paul has argued that this is God’s intention, so that He might save us by his grace. This is to the glory of God, rather than for our glory. To support his point, Paul takes his hearers back to Abraham, quoting from Genesis 15. It is Abraham who will receive the covenant of circumcision that the Jews have held up to be their source of God’s special favor. But by going to Abraham, Paul is able to show that Abraham’s righteousness comes before the covenant of circumcision (Chapter 17). Not even Abraham has a reason to boast of his righteousness, because God credits Abraham with righteousness simply by faith. This is our hope as well. It isn’t our good works that earn us God’s favor. Rather, we enjoy the favor of God, the righteousness of God by trusting his promises to us in Jesus Christ. Our good works are important – mostly to our neighbors – but are never the source of our salvation.

John 3:1-17 – Nicodemus comes to meet with Jesus at night. While this might be out of a desire for secrecy, it is just as likely the only time when Nicodemus could hope to have a word in private with Jesus, without the crowds around him. While Nicodemus wants to begin with pleasant compliments, Jesus moves directly to more complicated topics – such as how one enters the Kingdom of God. Jesus confounds Nicodemus with a seemingly impossible situation – the only way to enter the Kingdom of God is to be reborn. Nicodemus isn’t stupid, and he likely doesn’t mean his question literally. Jesus’ answer seems to make this clear. Rebirth is a matter of water and the spirit, rather than a mother’s womb. The rebirth is made possible by the Spirit of God, rather than by human effort.

This doesn’t clarify things any for Nicodemus, who is accustomed to thinking about salvation in terms of covenant obedience and sacrificial atonement. In the latter he is not far off, and Jesus leads him towards the truth by referencing an event from salvation history – Numbers 21. God made healing possible not through anything other than trusting his promise that looking upon the bronze serpent would heal. Likewise, Jesus will be lifted up – crucified – in the understanding that whoever looks upon his death with faith that Jesus’ death is on their behalf receives forgiveness through his death and resurrection.

Jesus is not the source of our condemnation, just as the bronze serpent in Numbers 21 was not the source of the Israelite’s condemnation. They already stood condemned to death by the bites of the serpents. Likewise, you and I already stand condemned to death by our failure to live perfectly as God expects from us. But the bronze serpent and the crucified and resurrected Jesus offer an alternative path from the one we are already on naturally. By trusting in Jesus, we are diverted from our course towards eternal death and separation from God and instead moved into a state of righteousness based on the forgiveness we receive through our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf. Jesus saves us from the condemnation we are already under – He does not bring new condemnation.

Faith is the trust that Jesus’ perfect life, voluntary death, resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven is not simply an objective fact of history, but subjectively my source of life and hope. In that simple trust, I am saved from the death around me and within me, and promised that while I will still physically die, I have been spiritually brought to life and that life will be eternal, one day reuniting me with my physical body. All of this is to God’s glory. He is the source and author of our salvation, and there is nothing I can do to take credit for this.

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