INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year A - Second Sunday in Lent
GENESIS 12:1‑4a. The call of Abram (or Abraham as he later became known) to leave his homeland and migrate to an unknown country is one of the crucial events of the Old Testament. Whether the stories surrounding this migration are tribal legends or actual events, there is no doubt that they became a formative part of Israel's faith history. Later generations would look back to this patriarch and see in Abram's obedience to the divine summons the initial response to God's covenant with Israel.
PSALM 121. This psalm has been sung in paraphrase form by many generations of Scots and Canadians. The latter paraphrase by the Marquis of Lome, Governor‑General of Canada 1879‑1883, while resident in Rideau Hall, Ottawa, is better known to us as the hymn "Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes." Its message is simple and powerful: God watches over us as permanently as the mountains mark the horizon.
ROMANS4:1‑5,13‑17. As a rabbi well trained in the religious traditions of Israel, Paul cited the call of Abraham as evidence that obedient response to God in faith is the key to Israel's religious heritage. Paul based his conviction that we are given a fight relationship with God (justifed is the term he used) by similarly responding to God in faith. Obeying the law was not sufficient, he argued. Faith must come first before there can be any obedience to the law.
JOHN 3:1‑17. John regarded this meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, as one of the most significant events in the theological conflict of Christianity with Judaism. Here he states the real purpose of Jesus' life and ministry. In many ways, the story reiterates what Paul had said to the Romans: Faith in God's love so fully revealed in Jesus, God's Son, is the only means of coming into a right relationship with God and our neighbours in this global age. Indeed, the whole of the New Testament conveys a similar message for all the world.
MATTHEW 17:1-9. (Alternate) - Note: Some churches, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition, celebrate the Transfiguration on this date rather than on the Last Sunday of Epiphany. Please refer to that listing for the analysis of this reading.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:
GENESIS 12:1-4a. The call of Abram (or Abraham as he later became known) to leave his homeland and migrate to an unknown country is one of the crucial events of the Old Testament. Apart from the sage itself, there are sixty-five other references to him in the Hebrew scriptures, often in a formulaic association with his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob. Genesis 11:31 states that Abram’s father, Terah, had earlier migrated from Ur of the Chaldeans, near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Haran in the upper Euphrates valley. It was from Haran that Abram and his nephew Lot migrated to Canaan (12:4b).
According to archeological and linguistic research, this migration corresponds with the movement of Amorite tribes from the northern Arabian desert in both directions southeast along the Tigris-Euphrates valley and southwest into Canaan. This also was the ancient trade route between east and west along the Fertile Crescent. One hypothesis holds that Abram may have been a caravan merchant, although biblical evidence presents him only as a pastoral chieftan. He was thought to have been a contemporary of Hammurapi, an identifiable historical monarch (ca.1750 BCE) in the territory later known as Babylonia, and today as Iraq.
The biblical saga of Abram (11:27-25:11) is a composite of the Jahwist, Elohist and Priestly documents in the Penteteuch. The text lists as many as twenty-two contacts with a wide variety of tribal groups and individuals. His change of name is explained in relation to the dialectal *’ab-hammon,* “father of many.” This probably has more to do with his role as the personification of the diverse Semitic clans subsequently united as a confederate people known as Israelites. Whether the stories surrounding this migration are tribal legends or actual events, there is no doubt that they became a formative part of Israel's faith history. Subsequent generations would look back to this first of Israel's patriarchs and see in Abram's obedience to the divine summons the initial response to God's covenant with Israel.
NT authors name Abram as a hero second to only Moses. There are as many references to him in the NT as in the OT. Even today the religious significance of this biblical figure for all Middle Eastern cultures cannot be ignored. Jews, Christians and Moslems all regard him as their spiritual progenitor. In this regard, while paying tribute to the late King Hussein of Jordan, the former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke of “all the children of Abraham.”
PSALM 121. Few psalms are so well-known, mostly because it is has been sung in paraphrase form by many generations. Two different paraphrases have been included many modern hymn books. The Scottish Psalter of 1650 gave a version which is better known in Scotland. John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll and as Marquis of Lorne the Governor General of Canada 1878-83, wrote the Canadian favourite,”Unto the hills around do I lift up my longing eyes.” It is said that his inspiration came from the Rocky Mountains seen from a distance as he trekked toward them in wagon train beyond the railway line. Another anecdote relates the inspiration to the Gatineau Hills seen from Rideau Hall, the governor general’s home in Ottawa. They reminded this homesick Scot of his boyhood haunts among the highlands of western Scotland.
The message of the biblical psalm is simple and powerful: God watches over us as permanently as the mountains mark the horizon. Originating also as an antiphonal hymn, the psalm may have been sung by pilgrims approaching the temple mount among the holy hills of Jerusalem after a perilous journey through territory infested with brigands. The ancient road up from Jericho in the Jordan valley was just such a place. Vss. 3-4 reflect the terror of a sleepless sentry lest he doze while on watch at night.
This psalm excels as poetry in any language. The Hebrew has a repetitive parallelism rising to a climactic affirmation of faith. It opens with a plea for divine help and the response rings throughout, “the Lord is your keeper.” In an ever insecure world, the words in any version touch the deepest spiritual chords in every human heart. Even in residences where senior citizens worship, the heart warms to hear it sung by those whose trust in God remains strong as their years decline.
ROMANS 4:1-5, 13-17. As a rabbi well trained in the religious traditions of Israel, Paul cited the call of Abraham as evidence that obedient response to God in faith is the key to Israel's religious heritage. Paul based his conviction that we are given a right relationship with God (*justifed* is the term he used) by similarly responding to God in faith. Obeying the law was not sufficient, he argued. Faith must come first before there can be any obedience to the law.
Paul also introduced a unique triangular metaphor of the relationship between faith, works and righteousness thus clarifying for the Romans the distinctive Christian gospel. This he traced back to the ancestral faith of Abraham in contrast to the traditional Jewish understanding of righteousness resulting from obedience to the law.
In a diagrammatic image, faith forms the apex of the triangle while works and righteousness form the base. The Jewish concept of righteousness included only the latter two base elements. Even Abraham was “justified by works,” (vs.1) according to their view. Paul had a different interpretation of scripture: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (vs.3) This became for Paul “the righteousness of faith” (vs.13) In other words, for Christians, whatever their background, righteousness and the works that follow from it proceed only from faith.
Nowhere in this passage does Paul introduce the name of Jesus. It is clear, however, that while Abraham is the exemplar of this new relationship between faith, righteousness and the works of the law, his understanding of the gospel about Jesus Christ is very much in his mind as we read in the immediately preceding passage (3:21-31). There he had emphasized the sinfulness of all humanity, an assertion which could well have distressed Jewish members of his audience who clung to their ancient scriptural traditions.
We should also recognize the changes in the meaning of our English verb, “to believe.” Its use in mediaeval and Elizabethan times conveyed the sense of trust in a person, loyalty or commitment to a person. That is the sense in which Paul and all other biblical authors used its Greek equivalent, *pisteuo* when speaking of believing in God or in Jesus Christ. Since the time of Hobbes, Locke and Mills in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, it has gradually taken on the force of a proposition, “to believe that ....” In the 1959 edition of *Chambers Encyclopedia,* the article on “Belief” states, “what we actually believe, in the strictness of the language, is always a proposition or set of propositions. Of these, creeds are composed.” (Quoted in Smith, Wilfrid Cantwell, *History and Belief.* Charlottesville, VA. Virginia University Press, 1977, p.49; n.30, p.109.)
JOHN 3:1-17. This passage is almost too familiar for effective preaching to our usual audiences. Even we ourselves have deaf ears to what John is saying as he moves into the heart of his gospel story. In a new book, *The Hidden Jesus: A New Life,* (St. Martin’s Press) Donald Spoto has written, “All human discourse is metaphor ... so any utterance about God must necessarily be provisional and incomplete, limited by the structures of language and the ideologies that constitute culture.” The metaphors in this passage with which we are so very familiar, perhaps, are “born again” and “God so loved the world....” Yet this is one of the great spiritual discourses of all time. Why?
John regarded this meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, as one of the most significant events in the theological conflict of Judaism with Christianity. This conflict had reached a climax in most communities where Christians and Jews intermingled within the decade previous to the writing of the Fourth Gospel (the 80s CE). Sometime during that decade, at the Synod of Jamnia, the Pharisees had exerted their power in Judaism. The canon of the Hebrew scriptures had been closed and all Jews who had followed the Jesus sect had been banished. It may well be that John regarded the Nicodemus tradition, which he alone recorded, as representative (i.e. a metaphor) of some particular person or the party of the Pharisees who was cautiously sympathetic toward the gospel rather than angrily opposed, as the rabbinical tradition had become.
Another significant metaphor is the introduction of the *question* with which Nicodemus came to Jesus (vs.2): “... for no one can do these signs that you do....” We quickly recognize the linkage between the story of the wedding at Cana, “the first of his signs ... and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The six dramatic signs of John’s Gospel reveal the glory of God for those with eyes to see. They set before Jesus’ disciples and everyone who saw or heard of them the crucial question of who Jesus is. Was he or was he not (and for us, is he or is he not) the Son of God, the fleshly representative of the Transcendent and Invisible Creator Spirit in whom the fullness of divine life became human?
John’s repeated use of the word *glory,* the traditional Hebrew term for the divine Presence, states unequivocally this central truth of Christian faith. By the end of the lst century CE, this term in Hebrew, *shekinah,* had become common in the rabbinical tradition as a metaphor for Yahweh.
A seemingly unimportant prepositional phrase in the Greek text leads us to yet another metaphor with similar significance. The NSRV throws some new light on the question raised by Nicodemus in vs.2: “apart from the presence of God.” The familiar rendition of this phrase reads: “unless God were with him” or something similar (cf. NEB, TEV, RSV, KJV) The Greek preposition *meta* in *met’ autou* has the particular force of *accompaniment* or *association.* The same phrase appears Acts 10:38 in Peter’s message to the house of Cornelius, the Roman officer in Caesarea. There it is translated as in the commonly known versions of John 3:2, “for God was with him.”
But this is John’s point. He sought to make it clear to his community that in Jesus God was indeed present with them, not only in the flesh during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also in the Spirit after the Resurrection. In many ways, the story of Nicodemus emphasizes the same point that Paul made in the passage above from Romans 4: Faith in God's love so fully revealed in Jesus, God's Son, is the only means of coming into a right relationship with God.
A fruitful exercise for a Bible study group might be to search this passage for the many other metaphors which it contains and to express what they mean for those who, like Nicodemus, are searching for a renewal of faith during this Lenten season.
MATTHEW 17:1-9. (Alternate - Note: Some churches, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition celebrate the Transfiguration on this date rather than on the Last Sunday of Epiphany. The analysis of this lesson has been repeated here.]
Has any other story greater mystery than this? Was it a vision revealing to the disciples Jesus’ true identity and his future glory after death? The cloud and the voice symbolized the presence of God and support for the law and the prophets at a crucial moment in Jesus’ ministry. As such it stressed the continuation of God’s self-revelation and represents a disclosure of the future glory of the risen Christ. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John does not limit the future manifestation of glory of God’s only Son to this single event.
The passage contains obvious reminiscences of the epiphany of Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. In fact, Luke refers specifically to Jesus’ death as ‘his exodus’ (Lk.9:31). As Moses had led the chosen people out of Egypt to the promised land, so this greater Moses will by his passion lead the new Israel to the kingdom of God. Presenting Jesus and the new Moses shaped much of Matthew’s thinking in composing his gospel
While the three synoptic accounts of the event do not entirely agree on certain details, all do regard it as the transforming event in the life of Jesus. The tradition repeated the narrative as an event which occurred during a vacation journey Jesus took with his disciples, probably near Caesarea Philippi, in the foothills of Mount Hermon. Since the 4th century CE, following St. Helena’s naming of holy sites, some Christians have claimed that the site was on Mount Tabor where commemorative churches have been erected since the 6th century CE. That site has many characteristics to commend it, offering as it does a magnificent view over the fertile Plain of Jezreel. In the OT, the mountain served Barak as the base from which he launched his successful attack against Sisera (Josh. 4:6-14). Later, it was named the meeting place of the territories belong to three of the belonging to the twelve tribes (Josh. 19:12, 22, 34).
The cloud is the *shekinah,* the term by which rabbinical literature interpreted the many OT references to divine glory. Matthew seems to be saying that as he made his way toward Jerusalem to undergo the passion, this glory was shed upon the human person of Jesus. As at his baptism, the divine voice declares him to be the *only* Son of God. Moses and Elijah represent the continuing revelation which he represents. Although Peter would have made tabernacles for the three, the two fade away and only Jesus remains. This was no gauche remark, but a recognition that the dwelling place of God would be not only with but with all humanity. (Cf. 2 Peter 1:19; Rev.21:3)
We must view this passage from the perspective of Matthew writing some 50 years after the resurrection. The story is filled with theological symbolism as to the nature and mission of Jesus as the Messiah of God. If they were only vaguely aware of it at the time, after the resurrection the three apostolic witnesses would have understood it in those terms. By placing this story at the centre of his gospel Matthew provided the post-apostolic church with assurance of the fulfillment of those things for which all Christians hope.