2nd Sunday in Lent

February 24, 2002
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Genesis 12:1-4a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 121
Reading 3: 
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Reading 4: 
John 3:1-17
By Barry A. Woodbridge

The second Sunday in Lent presents a varied lectionary which should strongly prompt the initial question: What do all these texts have to do with the season of Lent?

Genesis 12 Yahweh calls Abraham into a covenant; Abraham enters it by leaving his country.

Psalm 121 From whence does our help come?

Romans 4 Abraham is reckoned righteous not by his works but by faith.

John 3 Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night.

Many will again pass on the more heuristic task of finding some Lenten thematic unity in these four texts and will hone in on the story line of Nicodemus or the most famous of all Christian verse which appears today, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…" There is much to commend in those texts, and to link the Nicodemus narrative with the John 3:16 passage and thus disclose what it means in context would be ample challenge for one week!

For those who wish to discover the Lenten theme, we might begin with some of the relationship of studying last week’s texts to this week’s. Last week we were involved with the Garden temptation and Jesus’ temptation in the desert. Lent, we say, is a journey, and often the desert motif provides much of the landscape from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry up to the time of entering Jerusalem.

Today’s lections could be understood as continuing those themes of journey through the desert as an act of faith. Abraham is called from his homeland to a new strange land, with the promise this journey will lay the foundation for countless future generations. Nicodemus must also leave another kind of "homeland," that of the security of his established place in Jewish hierarchy which has authorized his position in life. Both Abraham and Nicodemus share a calling to that which stretches their identity, their self-understanding, and ultimately their faith in God.

What Abraham does across the miles of desert, Nicodemus does across the chasm of ideological and theological extremes from Pharisee to a "new age" religion (actually a reinterpretation of Judaism) proposed by Jesus. Both journey on the basis of a persistent calling forward, not a certainty. The psalter from Psalm 121 probably appears here as the steadying support, that the power of Yahweh keeps "your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore."

Perhaps the densest, most difficult, and therefore least preached text of the day comes from Romans 4. Who wants to pronounce this juridical discourse when they could more easily tell stories and relate narrative journeys?

Commentaries on Romans and this passage abound. One of the now classics is Ernst Kasemann’s Commentary on Romans (Trans and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromily. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980). One might be surprised how processive certain of Kasemann’s proposals about this text sound today, in spite of our usual association of him with the existentialists and Bultmanians of the new quest of Jesus. It is first important to deal with Paul’s audience and context of addressing this statement of faith to a mixed audience of Jews and Gentile in Rome. Then comes the critical and defining distinction of how it was that God "reckoned" Abraham as righteous, an example of Paul using a text from Genesis 15:6 as a hermeneutical tool for his contemporary address. Here, Kasemann observes that the nature of what Paul means by faith is not something Abraham had any control over. He writes that such faith "is primarily God’s decision" (p. 109). God’s initial aim is that Abraham may understand himself not primarily by the past but this calling into the future. Then Kasemann discusses the "sphere of power" which "pistis" refers to, and that sphere of power is one "in which promise becomes possibility." Out of the nothingness that is pregnant with pure possibilities (see verse 17b "…and calls into existence the things that do not exist"), this One who calls Abraham and Nicodemus forward creates the promise, participates with them in actualizing the journey, and reckons that as the most faithful response. Kasemann looks back on this and summarizes "Faith arises over the graves of natural possibilities" (p. 124). Perhaps we would rephrase that to suggest that faith is a particular response among all the natural possibilities which becomes highly accentuated by the Spirit.

For those dealing more in-depth with the Nicodemus narrative today, we might suggest a novel approach taken in James Alison’s Faith Beyond Resentments: Fragments Catholic and Gay (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001). He reads this narrative about Nicodemus from the perspective of one who faces the journey of coming out of the closet. He does not think in any way that Nicodemus was himself gay, but that his faith dynamics help us interpret the gay experience today. He writes, "Maybe Nicodemus’ act was still timid. Maybe, like some of us who have accompanied those terminally ill with AIDS at a time when it was assumed to be a particularly gay disease, he found it possible to do in death what he was not brave enough to honour in life. Even so, the richness of his tribute bespeaks a genuine freedom of conscience, a having broken out of the world of ‘flesh’ and an emerging into the world of Spirit." Considering what Nicodemus’ risked in his nocturnal visit to Jesus, Alison poses a sobering question: "Which is more frightening, to take your chances with the living God, or see whether you can negotiate survival in the midst of violent men? (p. 220). He means the context of Nicodemus and the Pharisees, but this poignant commentary also illumines that most enigmatic reference to violence in Matt. 11:12.

Thus, God so loved the world that this power of creative transformation gave us courage over our own violence, over those who would terrorize us, and over an uncertain journey which, in retrospect, may be reckoned as faithful!

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