Reading Ramblings – March 8, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2020

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

Context: With Abraham the formal process of bringing the promised heir of Eve into the world to crush the power of the serpent begins. This heir must come from somewhere, some branch of Eve’s children. But we would be remiss if we assume Abraham is chosen for any reason we can determine. It’s tempting to say Abraham was a righteous man and God therefore selected him rather than another. But this is not what Scripture says. The story of Abraham is, in fact, a story of a man who often makes bad rather than good decisions, who acts out of fear and self-preservation. Abraham’s righteousness is certainly not his own, but he does trust in the promises of God, which Paul makes clear is what matters. The same holds true for you and I who trust in the promises of God the Father through the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.

Genesis 12:1-9 – We are introduced to Abraham in Genesis 11. He’s of the line of Shem – the firstborn of Noah’s three sons. From the biographical data in Genesis 11:27-32, we see Abram’s father, Terah, leading part of the clan from Ur towards Canaan, leaving his son Nahor behind in Ur. This was a significant journey that started south of Babylon and arced northwards, and then would be the southwards journey towards Canaan. But Terah stops in Haran, a city at the northernmost point of the journey, and never makes the southward trek to Canaan. When God calls Abram, was He renewing or reiterating a call He had already made to Terah? If so, we are not told. What we are told is when God calls, Abram responds. For whatever reason he is willing to folltow the call and trust the promises associated with it. And from this beginning, a 75-year old man and his barren wife, God will raise up not just offspring and nations but a Savior.

Psalm 121 – A perfect psalm of trust. One could easily imagine Abram as composing it – or at least hoping the sentiments behind it were true! But it was written a thousand years after Abram and his adventures. This psalm is one of the psalms associated with pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, and an appropriate psalm it would be on a long journey where danger might take many forms. We take our precautions and make our plans but truly only God holds all power and knowledge, and so He alone is the one who can preserve us in any situation or challenge. The creator of all things holds absolute power over all things. Interestingly the psalm ends with the assertion that God’s care for us is not simply for a time, or even a lifetime, but forevermore. Beyond simple hyperbole, this points towards an understanding that our relationship with our heavenly Father extends a lot longer than the span of a lifetime, and God who watches over us here will certainly not fail to extend his watchful eye throughout eternity itself.

Romans 4:1-8, 13-17 – In order to prove his point about righteousness coming to us through faith rather than obedience to the Law or any other form of works on our part, Paul goes back to the patriarch Abraham. Surely, if ever there was a man who pleased God through his own righteousness, it must be him, right? After all, God chose him as the father of the tribes of Israel! But no, this is not the case, Paul argues. The righteousness credited to Abraham comes to him not because of what he does but because he believed the promises of God. He believed God could and would do what He promised Abraham, even when such promises looked impossible to fulfill. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 here, later than the Old Testament reading for this morning but earlier than another important moment in the life of Abraham – the giving to Abraham and his male descendants of the covenant of circumcision. This is given in Genesis 17, but Abraham’s righteousness is already noted in chapter 15. Therefore, his righteousness is not in circumcision, but in his trust in God, an important distinction to Jewish people of Paul’s day who were prone to seeing circumcision as the more important detail. Abraham is given the promise before he responds in obedience to the covenant of circucision. While he is still, in that respect, a Gentile. Therefore God can extend righteousness to anyone who trusts his promises, not simply to the descendants of Abraham according to circumcision. God has already demonstrated how wide-reaching He intends his grace ultimately to be, even as He works to bring that grace to fruition through a very specific and limited group of people.

John 3:1-17 – Nicodemus is not necessarily trying not to be seen here. Later in the evening would be the best time to potentially have a one-on-one discussion with Jesus without the presence of crowds or even disciples. His address to Jesus is earnest and respectful, addressing him not simply as a rabbi and an equal but also someone whom God is with. But Jesus isn’t interested in small talk. His time is short, and perhaps his time with Nicodemus is short. Nicodemus sees Jesus as a God-empowered teacher, but what he can’t see yet is Jesus as the kingdom of God on earth. For that, Nicodemus needs more than to see the signs Jesus does, he needs to be reborn in his spirit. Only by being in the Holy Spirit can Nicodemus recognize not just Jesus the teacher, but Jesus the Son of God, who brings the kingdom of God with him. Nicodemus’ confusion allows Jesus to press the point. How is it, if Jesus is just Nicodemus’ equal as a rabbi, that Nicodemus is unable to follow Jesus’ meaning? How can Nicodemus call himself a teacher of God’s people if he himself does not understand what needs to be taught?

And now Jesus is speaking in third person. Why? Some think the disciples are present and listening in, but it seems more likely that Jesus is not speaking of them, but rather of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work guiding people to faith – to rebirth – in Jesus. It might also be He refers to John the Baptist as one who does testify regarding Jesus directly. Given the apostle John’s heavy emphasis on John the Baptist’s proper role in these opening chapters of his gospel, that might make good sense as well. John the Baptist saw the dove descend, heard the voice of God, and testified to his followers that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

He concludes with the assertion that it is the Son of Man’s work to be lifted up. The reference to Numbers 21 is given to show how Nicodemus has still not yet connected the dots between the scenes in Scripture and the presence and work of Jesus now. Nicodemus still doesn’t see the Old Testament as always preparing the way for the offspring of Eve who will undo the serpent’s ancient power. The Old Testament is not just a list of rules to follow mixed in with family history – it is all related to the work of the promised Messiah, something the Holy Spirit alone enables people to see through the eyes of faith. Nicodemus isn’t there yet. Perhaps he is by the time he confronts the Sanhedrin in chapter 7, or by the time he shows up with a large amount of burial spices to take Jesus’ body from the cross in chapter 19.

Just as God the Father chooses Abraham to begin his purposed redemption, Jesus is chosen specifically to accomplish it. You and I have no part to play in this redemption other than whether we, like Abraham, trust the promises of God in Jesus Christ.

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