2nd Sunday in Lent

March 7, 2004
Reading 1: 
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Reading 2: 
Psalm 27
Reading 3: 
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Reading 4: 
Luke 9:28-36

When we search for a common thread that joins our lectionary texts for this second Sunday of Lent it seems to be the manifestation of the transcendent, the holy, the other, God. This manifestation comes in many ways, often unexpected ways. These texts remind us that life is not just what we see and hear around us.  There is a transcendent reality that appears occasionally in our daily round and makes us look at “everyday” reality as not so everyday after all. Abraham, “David,” Paul and Jesus, different witnesses to a reality which is a remarkable presence in our lives or which can be such a presence that surprises us occasionally in our daily rounds.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
In the early Church Abraham was seen as a saint because he “saw” God, and this text is one of the evidences that he did. Actually, what the text says is that “the Word of the Lord came to Abram in the vision.” It is the Lord’s Word, davar, that came to Abram, and that in the vision. Often in the Bible what manifests itself is the “Word” or the “Name” of God, aspects of God that seem to have their own reality. Modern interpreters think that this is a way of avoiding the presence of the nature or essence of God, but is the word or the name really not an essential part of the person? However that may be visions of God as such are avoided. When some texts come close, it is the chariot of God (Ezek 1) or the back of God (Exod 33) that is seen and not the face of God. When it is said that Moses spoke to God “face to face” (Exod 33:11; Num 14:14; Deut 5:4; 34:10) this is very exceptional.Numbers 12:6-8 contrasts the way God speaks in dreams to his prophets and the way he speaks to Moses “mouth to mouth.”  In Num 14:14 the Hebrew expression is literally “eye to eye.” In Deut 5:4 the “face to face God spoke to you (the people of Israel)” is qualified by adding “in the midst of the fire.” And after saying in Exod 33:11 that God spoke face to face with Moses God responds to Moses’ petition to see God’s glory by passing and showing him his . . . back! Still and all, Moses is a person to whom ordinary rules do not apply.

 Abram saw God only in “the vision.” (The article is mysterious, perhaps an indication of the unusual nature of what happened--not just any vision but the vision). The revelation, which is the Word in the vision, begins with a conversation between God and Abram, with God saying that Abram’s reward is great and Abram retorting that whatever he has no natural heir for any reward, great or small. At this point the Lord invites Abram out to see the sky and challenges him to count the stars, since his descendants will be such.  Verse 6 wraps up this conversation but it is not evident in its meaning. Literally translated, the Hebrew says, “And he trusted the Lord and took it as justice for him.” The subject of the sentence is without a doubt Abram. It seems clear that Abram took the Lord as just. But, what is the antecedent of “it” (feminine)? Word, davar, and zera, word or descendants, are masculine, while ha, the "it" here, is feminine.

 The old Greek translation, the Septuagint, follows a different course, reading the “counted” as passive:  “Abram believed the Lord, and it (his belief, ´emunah, feminine, not actually mentioned except as suggested by the verb “believed”) was counted to him as justice.” The feminine pronoun “it” now becomes the subject of the second part of the sentence, which is read as a passive. Paul read the text this way in his Greek Bible (Rom 4; this text quoted according to the Septuagint in Rom 4:3).

The grammar is just a help and not our result. Looked at as a whole, either Abram counted the Lord as just because of God’s promise or the Lord counted Abram’s faith for justice to him, Abram. Either way, we must remember this all happens in a vision. Abram encounters God in a vision. In either reading of this difficult verse, Abram ends up believing that God is offering to him the paternity of a multitude. Abram becomes a believer in God’s fidelity. His reality as a sterile old man is transfigured into confidence in a coming multitude of descendants by this irruption of transcendence in a vision. In the continuation of the vision he sees God as a smoking pot and a flaming torch (Gen 15:17), one of the many forms in which the Lord is revealed in Scripture, and the Lord offers him a covenant, which is less a mutual pact than a promise on the Lord’s part that requires nothing from Abram. This berit (feminine) is the culmination of the vision. Here, finally, we have a feminine noun that can serve as the antecedent for the “it” in v. 6!

Abram’s experience with God is not unlike Job’s. God called him from his home in civilized Ur and led him into the barbaric hills of Palestine with promises of land that seem meaningless in the face of his and Sarah’s sterility. Abram’s encounter with God, even in a night vision, is enough to convince him that this God who has covenanted a numerous seed and plus the land is just and trustworthy. This reading of the chapter makes better sense than the Septuagint’s passive that is adopted in most translations. Abram has not been challenged for injustice and we have no reason to think that a declaration of his justice is particularly relevant. On the other hand, Abram has every reason to question God’s integrity, God who has apparently lured him away from civilization with false promises of abundant lands and wealth. The meeting with God in which the Lord gives him a covenant is enough for Abram! God is just! God can be trusted! We also in Lent 2004 in the midst of a world crisis for which our nation is largely to be blamed need assurances from our God. Will a marvelous manifestation of God be sufficient? It will at least be a start. Unless we can trust God to fulfill God’s purposes in creation, we are indeed helpless and hopeless.

Psalm 27
Psalm 27 is one of the 43 individual psalms of lament or supplication in the book of Psalms. As is usual in these psalms, there are three personnae, the psalmist, God, and the enemy of the psalmist.  As in the majority of these psalms, in this one it is the enemies who are responsible for the disasters faced by the psalmist. (The other possibilities are that the psalmist is himself responsible because of his or her sins as in Psalm 51, a text for Ash Wednesday this year, or that God is held responsible, as in the book of Job.) 

In spite of fitting into a common pattern, this psalm does stand out with some distinctive features. We can appreciate this by starting with vv 3-4: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked the Lord, that will I seek after; to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” God is not asked to intervene because of the psalmist’s honesty and innocence of any charge. God is not perceived as a judge--as is quite frequent in the psalms. Rather, if the psalmist can live in the Lord’s house “seeing” (chazoth, contemplating in a vision) the beauty of the Lord. Beauty (no`am) here is perhaps better rendered “graciousness.” It is not so much something one contemplates as something one feels.

Nowhere does the psalmist ask the Lord to free her or him from the army encamping against this psalmist. What the psalmist desires is to be surrounded by the goodness and mercies of the Lord in the midst of danger. V 7 continues the thought: “My heart tells me, Seek my (his?) face; your face will I seek, Lord.” The psalmist will be satisfied to know the presence of the Lord, even though the enemy armies continue to assail her or him. The psalmist makes it clear that she or he expects to experience God’s grace in the temple while offering sacrifices “with shouts of joy” (v 6). So this is not a private mystical experience but a participation in the liturgy of the people of God. There the psalmist expects to know the encompassing “beauty, grace, mercy” of the Lord. With that he or she can be satisfied in the midst of life trials and tribulations. The psalmist ends with this petition, “I believe that I will see the goodness (tuv) of the Lord in the land of the living” (v 13). He does not need to experience salvation from enemies. Perhaps it is implicit that he or she might even be killed by them. It will be enough to know the beauty and goodness of God in the common liturgy. In the liturgy, then, transcendence breaks in and transforms his or her life.

Philippians 3:17-4:1
In general, Paul’s letter to the young congregation of followers of Jesus in Philippi is the friendliest of all his letters. He seems to really have felt at home with these Philippians. This passage also shows a streak of Paul that we find difficult to follow in the recent church, his asceticism. It seems that when Paul asks the Philippian believers to imitate him he means in his abstention from family life. I say this because of the opposition established between his conduct in v 17 and that of the others who are not to be followed in vv 18-19. These others have the belly as their God and think earthly things (epígeia). The belly here probably refers both to gluttony, mindless eating, and to sexual practices, a matter Paul seem considers “earthly.”

It is useful to remember that in this challenge to family life, Paul’s morals are quite contrary to the usual advice of Roman moralists. The two pillars of Roman society and morality were property and family. Family obligations were crucial because of the constant threat of population collapse. The modern concern with excessive population was unknown in ancient times when, because of infant mortality and frequent mortality in births, just maintaining existing population levels was a real challenge. This is a matter that does not seem to have concerned Paul in the least. He puts himself on the fringe of society by advising abstinence from sex and marriage to young people as he does in 1 Cor 7 and implies here in our Philippians text.

That he understands the social significance of his stance is evident in v 20 where he announces that our society (políteuma) is heavenly (en ouranois). In other words, we have no social obligations to the imperial society dominated by Rome. In the bands of followers of Jesus we can expect the Lord Jesus Christ to transform our bodies (metaschematísei to söma ..hemön). This contrast between the earthy concerns of Paul’s rivals--and of Roman moralists–-and the heavenly transformations that can be expected in the bodies of those who imitate Paul is the key to this passage. Since we no longer are full members of Roman society but count our society as heavenly we must be prepared to follow a different set of everyday rules of conduct. With bodies that are being transformed into his glorious body (Ph 3:21) we have no excuse not to be subjected in all to his power. So, beloved brothers and sisters, stand in the Lord (Ph 4:1).

After two thousand years of following Jesus it is clear that this earthly society must be reckoned with in a manner Paul did not anticipate. Earthly society is here to stay, which means that so is the family that serves as its reproductive unit. (In our time of an abundance of population we can also tolerate permanent unions of persons of the same sex that no longer threaten to collapse society’s then-fragile struggle to survive, but that is not the point here.) But this does not mean that we lose sight of the transcendent in the midst of our lives as followers of Jesus. The power (enérgeian) of Jesus’ glory must still be thought of as present, otherwise Jesus’ resurrection has no significance for us. As Paul resisted the social pressures of family in his times, our Christian vocation should enable us to resist the pressures of materialism, ecological destruction and militarism of our time. The dominant flow of our capitalist society is materialistic (it is unpatriotic not to engage in shopping sprees), anti-ecological (protecting the environment adds to the cost of consumer items) and militaristic (if you don’t support the military adventures of our government you are unpatriotic). So, in a different way than Paul’s social independence, the “heavenly” is also a power for the transformation of our bodies today.

Luke 9:28-36
The story of the “transfiguration” which in Mark is a simple manifestation of Jesus’ transformed resurrection body, since Mark has no resurrection appearances, is in Luke a result of Jesus’ prayer. They went up a mountain to pray (v 28) and while Jesus was praying the appearance (eidos) of his face became different and his clothes became a shiny white (v 29). Like Moses’ face when he descended from the mountain of God in Exod 34:29) his face was transformed. And Moses himself and Elijah appeared beside him! This is a manifestation of the Transcendent in and through the body and clothes of Jesus!

The disciples Peter, James and John overhear the conversation of these three notables and they are discussing Jesus’ coming “exodus” in Jerusalem. (Only Luke among the gospels tells us what the three were doing.) Remember that, according to Luke, Jesus has only practiced his ministry in Galilee up to this point.  His departure for Jerusalem will begin in Luke 9:51 not much after this scene. What does his exodus mean here? Since the text says “exodus . . . in Jerusalem” it is not apparently his departure from Galilee for the capital city of the Jews. Considering that the change in Jesus’ face is an early manifestation of his resurrection in all the synoptic gospels, the exodus must mean his exodus from a purely earthly body to a heavenly one. It is with a special face that he will appear to the travelers to Emmaus in Lk 24:13-32 so that they only recognize him in the breaking of bread. And it is with a heavenly body that he appears to the gathering in Jerusalem that evening (Lk 24:36-43) in such a fashion that he must be felt to be recognized.

They (the three) saw his glory and that of the other two men (Lk 9:32).The culmination of the episode comes in v 34-35 when a cloud concealed the illustrious three and a voice announced, “This is my chosen son; obey him.” The cloud is well known from the books of Moses as a manifestation and concealing of God’s presence. With these words God (the Father, in later Christian doctrine) confirms Jesus as God’s Son who must be obeyed.

What does this story tell us about transcendence in the 21st century?  One thinks of the godly presence manifested in some of the saints of our times, Mahatma Ghandhi, Dorothy Day, César Chávez, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, among others. Persons whose lives seemed ordinary though dedicated to serve are in due time revealed as extraordinary presences among us of divine transcendence in everyday life. When did the young lawyer in South Africa become the ascetic Master in India? Or when did the everyday bishop in El Salvador become the spokesman for the victims of an outrageous military force? These seem like marvelous transformations of earthly persons, though fine examples of human dignity, into something more, manifestations of God’s presence among us. Again, transcendence reveals its presence in everyday living on this earth. It is not a matter of afterlife--which is not to be denied–-but of the heavenly glory present in these earthly bodies.