Friday, August 15, 2014
Judges 14:20-15:20; Psalm 102; Acts 7:17-29; John 4:43-54
When Samson left his Philistine wife behind after their wedding in Timnah, her father assumed that he had divorced her and gave her to one of Samson’s companions. Not knowing this, at the time of the wheat harvest, Samson decided to return to his wife. When he got to Timnah and tried to enter her room, her father would not allow him in and explained what he had done with her and why. In a rage, Samson went out and captured 300 foxes, tied them tail to tail, and placed lighted torches between them releasing them into the Philistine wheat fields that were in the midst of harvest. The result was that not only their entire crop was destroyed, but their vineyards as well. When the Philistines asked why he had done so and learned that Samson’s father-in-law had given Samson’s wife to another, the Philistine men went and burned both the father and his daughter alive (remember, this is not Delilah, but simply Sampson’s first love--an un-named Philistine woman). When Samson learned of it, he rose up against the men and inflicted a great slaughter among them and then fled to Etam to live in the cleft of the rock there. The Philistine men then went up to Judah and camped in Lehi. When asked why there were there, the Philistines said they had come to bind Samson and do to him as he had done to them. Under servitude to the Philistines, 3,000 men from Judah went down to Etam to bind Samson and bring him back to the Philistines. Samson bargains with them: if they promise not to kill him, but deliver him alive, he will let them bind him. And so they do, wrapping him in two new ropes and bringing him back to the Philistines. When they arrive with him at the Philistine camp in Lehi, the Philistines erupt in shouting. As they do, the spirit of the Lord comes upon Samson, who bursts the new ropes as if they were flax being consumed by fire. Grasping a new jawbone of a donkey lying nearby, he waded into the Philistines, slaying a thousand of them. After casting the bone aside, he named the place Ramath-Lehi—“high place of the jawbone.” Now, overcome with thirst from his exertion, Sampson calls upon God to give him drink and God splits a “hollow place” in Lehi to give him water in abundance. His thirst satisfied and his strength revived, he names the place En-Hakkore—“spring of the one who called,” which the chronicler reminds the reader is in Lehi “to this day.” This episode concludes by noting that Samson judged in Israel twenty years during the days of the Philistines.
Psalm 102 is entitled “A prayer of the afflicted when faint and pouring out his soul to the Lord,” which is precisely what this psalm is about. Pleading for the Lord’s saving and reviving presence, the psalmist laments that God has hidden his face from the supplicant’s distress. He compares himself to a pelican in the wilderness or a lone owl in a waste place, like a single bird perched on a rooftop. He is so bereft and overcome that he has forgotten to eat. His flesh hangs on his bones. His enemies taunt him endlessly. His days pass away like smoke. His heart is withered like grass. Too stricken to even eat, his only food has been the ashes of penance and tears so abundant that they have diluted his wine. All of this is because, in God’s wrath, he has been singled out and cast away. Though his days are but a lengthened shadow, the Lord’s days are forever. And now, the psalm turns the corner from lament to a psalm of trust and intercession. The Lord, who lives forever, will arise and have compassion on Zion and on the Lord’s servants there who hold its stones dear. Perhaps he hopes to be included among those on whom God has compassion. God is called on to act so that nations and generations yet unborn will praise his name. God will regard the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. From here, the psalm takes another turn, this time to praise, declaring for generations to come that God did look down from his high place. God heard the groans of the prisoners and set free those doomed to die, so that the Lord’s name could continue to be declared in Zion when people gather there to worship him. And now the psalm returns to lament: though God has broken the psalmist’s own strength midcourse, he pleads that God not end his life at its mid-point. Long ago God established the foundations of the earth and made the heavens. Though they will perish, God will endure. They will all wear out like a garment. God changes them like clothing yet remains the Lord forever. The psalm ends on a final note of affirmation and hope: the children of the Lord’s servants shall live secure, with their children established in God’s presence.
Stephen continues his recital of holy history, chronicling the time between Joseph’s reign and the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph’s name. This latter Pharaoh dealt with the Israelites harshly and craftily, forcing them to abandon their newborn children to death. It was at this time that Moses was born. Stephen then paints a lovely story of Moses, from his birth to abandonment, to adoption as Pharaoh’s grandson, who was reared and instructed in Egyptian wisdom, making him powerful in word and deed. At forty years of age, Moses visited his people, found an Israelite being oppressed and abused by and Egyptian, intervened and killed the Egyptian, expecting his people to understand that he was God’s servant on their behalf. But, they did not understand. The following day he came upon two of his own people quarreling and tried to reconcile them, asking why they were wronging one another. The man wronging his neighbor challenged Moses, asking the ironic question, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?” Hearing this, Moses knows that his killing the Egyptian is now public knowledge and he must flee. He does so, to the land of Midian (Sinai), where he becomes a resident alien, and the father of two sons. Stephen’s recital of holy history will continue tomorrow.
After two days in Samaria, Jesus continues his journey to Galilee, though he well understands that prophets are not honored in their own land. When he gets to Galilee, he encounters people there who had been in Jerusalem at the feast and knew of the things he had done there. Moving on to Cana, where he had earlier turned the water into wine, we hear of a royal official from Capernaum, whose son is dying. Learning that Jesus has come up from Judea and is in Cana, he makes the journey to come to Jesus and beg him to come to Capernaum to heal his son. Jesus expresses his frustration with what it takes for people to recognize truth and light, less with the official than with all of them standing by—the “you” here is plural—saying that unless they see signs and wonders, they will not believe. The man pleads again, and Jesus tells him to go home, his son will live. Believing Jesus, the man leaves—an interesting act of faith—and begins his journey home. On his way he is met by a servant who has come to tell him his son has recovered. When the man asks at what time the boy began to be better, the servant identifies the very hour at which Jesus had told the man his son would live. The man recognizes it, and we are told that “he believed and his whole household.” This then is the second sign Jesus performed in Galilee.
Thursday, August 14, 2014
Judges 14:1-19; Psalm 105:1-22; Acts 6:15-7:16; John 4:27-42
Samson is now a man and is smitten with his first love. Unfortunately, she is a Philistine; outside the covenant community. Though his parents beg him to reconsider, he will not be dissuaded. This is his first love, and his parents finally give into him (neither the first nor the last time—little wonder Samson has so little character!). He takes the woman from Timnah for his wife. The editorial writer inserts a comment to justify this from a Judge—it was from the Lord who caused Samson to seek this as a pretext for what the Lord was planning to do among the Philistines. As Samson and his parents travel down to Timnah to negotiate the marriage, they are attacked by a lion. The spirit of the Lord comes upon Samson and he tears the lion to pieces. Later, as he returns for the wedding, he passes the carcass of the lion and finds a swarm of bees within it and their residue honey. Scooping the honey out of the carcass he violates his nazirite vow of no contact with death. The story moves on. When they gather for the wedding feast, Samson enters into a contest with the Philistine men of Timnah and poses his riddle as a means of gaining a wedding price for the bride. No one can come up with the right answer, so on the fourth day of the seven-day wedding feast, the townsmen come to Samson’s new wife and tell her to entice Samson to tell her the answer to the riddle and then tell them, otherwise they will burn down her father’s house as well as her own. After all, they were invited to a wedding feast, and now, it appears, that it will leave them in poverty. For the next three days she presses Samson for the answer, weeping and claiming that he does not love her. Finally, on the seventh day, she presses him so hard that he tells her the answer, which she quickly conveys to the men in her town. Notice that her primary loyalty is to her people and not to her husband, a theme that will continue to play itself out in the Samson narrative. The townsmen arrive before sundown to give Samson the answer to his riddle. Enraged he says “if you had not plowed with my heifer,”—ever after a phrase denoting everything from underhanded play to sexual misconduct with one’s spouse—they would not have been able to solve the riddle. They have won; he owes them 30 linen wraps and suits of clothing. We are told that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily” and he went down to Askelon and killed thirty of the men of Askelon, took their spoils and gave them to the townsmen of Timnah who had outwitted him. Having paid his debt, and angry at his wife’s betrayal, he leaves her behind and returns to his parent’s home.
Psalm 105 is a psalm of praise that calls everyone to make known God’s deeds among the people. The reading is divided with the first portion of these first twenty-two verses dominated by the language of praise—“Give thanks,” “call,” “sing,” “glory” and “rejoice.” Sing praise to him and speak of all of his wonders. Seek the Lord and his strength continually. It then recounts the reasons for this praise: God’s faithfulness to Israel. The psalm begins citing God’s initial covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and the children of Israel—a covenant made forever—making them God’s “chosen ones” with the promise of the Land of Canaan as their inheritance. It then remembers their past: few in number and of little account and nomads in the land, often oppressed by the kings of other nations, and how God reproved their kings for his people’s sake. They are, after all, the Lord’s anointed ones—prophets who speak for the Lord. The famine that ultimately sent the children of Israel to Egypt is recalled. But for now, the focus is upon Joseph being sold into slavery, then imprisoned until the time that the Lord’s word was to come to pass. (As the author of Hebrews reminds us, it can be a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Lord, as Joseph well learned! [Hebrews 10:31]. How much have we attempted to domesticate the Lord?) But the Lord was faithful and the Pharaoh set Joseph free and made him lord of Pharaoh’s house and ruler over all of his possessions, giving Joseph power to “imprison [Pharaoh’s] princes at will in order to teach the Egyptian elders wisdom.” We stop today at verse 22, prior to the rest of the children of Israel coming to Egypt.
Stephen stands before the council, as all in the room look at him awaiting answer to the High Priest’s question: are these allegations true? Stephen uses the question as an opportunity to demonstrate his orthodoxy—remember, he is a Greek proselyte—and he begins an impressive recital of Israel’s salvation history beginning with God’s call of Abraham. The lesson continues with Stephen telling of God’s covenant with Abraham and promise of descendants, the birth of Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons, Joseph’s adventures and triumphs in Egypt during the famine, and the people’s sojourn in Egypt through the death of Jacob. Today’s lesson concludes with the burial of Jacob in the tomb Abraham purchased from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
The disciples return to Jacob’s well from their search for food and are startled to find Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman, but none of them dare ask him why. In the interruption the woman takes the opportunity to depart, leaving her water jar behind. Is it simply an oversight or something she did in haste? Hardly, no woman would leave her water jar behind unless she no longer felt a need for it. The author wants us to know that she has drunk from a different well and her thirst has been satisfied. She returns to her town and tells all who will listen that she has met a man that has told her everything she has ever done; can he be the Christ? And so, those she talks to leave the city and, with her, return to the well. Meanwhile, the disciples try to get Jesus to eat something, which gives him a context in which to talk about the work he has been sent to do as “food,” and the fact that they, too, are being incorporated into that work. Another has sowed; now it is time for them to reap. The harvest is rich and ready. In the midst of this conversation, the woman returns with the people from the city, some of whom already believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony—speaking of rich harvest beyond expectation—and they ask Jesus and his companions to stay with them (the cultural and religious barriers are coming down), and they do, for two days. Consequently, many more Samaritans believe in Jesus “because of his word.” The story ends with the people confessing that their belief is no longer based upon what the woman said, but rather by what they have seen and heard. Now they know that he is not simply “the Christ,” but “the Savior of the World.” Yet another title has entered the lexicon that seeks to define Jesus.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Judges 13:15-24; Psalms 101; Acts 6:1-15; John 4:1-26
Manoah asks to prepare a meal for “the man,” not knowing it is the Angel of the Lord (who in reality is God—“Angel of the Lord” is the way the biblical writer tries to avoid saying that God has shown up in person). “The man,” refuses Manoah’s request, but says that Manoah may make a burnt offering to the Lord. Manoah asks “the man’s” name and the angel responds, “Why do you ask since my name is wonderful?” (the Hebrew of which means “beyond comprehension.”) Manoah prepares the burnt offering of a goat and grain and offers it on a rock, and as he does, the Lord performs wonders, including the Angel of the Lord ascending in and with flame to consume the offering. As that happens, Manoah and his wife fall on their faces in obeisance and fear. Manoah now understands that he has seen the Angel of the Lord and, thus, fears that they will die. His wife knows better: why would the Angel have gone to all this trouble if he meant to kill them? No, they will live, and she will give birth to the promised child. And so, she does and names him Samson, which means “deliverer of Israel.” The Spirit of the Lord begins to stir in him as the Lord blesses him.
The psalm can be read either as a royal psalm, in which the King is making an oath concerning his office and promising to root out the evil and perverse from the community, or it may be read as a wisdom psalm that is a model for instructing the young. The language is harsh for effect, and not meant to be taken literally. “Morning by morning” is not a daily call to destroy all the wicked in the land. Soon the land would be desolate! Rather, it is an expression of the need for wisdom’s vigilance daily.
The number of believers continues to increase, including not only many of the priests in Jerusalem, but also Gentile proselytes who had become Jews, who now have responded to the gospel. The mixture of ethnic groups within the infant church brought with it growing pains, which led to the emergence of a new ministry within the church—the deacons. The custom was for the believers to gather each evening in someone’s home, for worship—the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper (breaking of bread), and fellowship—and do so during the evening meal. Once that was complete, whatever food and drink were left over from the meal became part of a daily distribution to the widow and orphans among them. It was not long before the Gentile proselyte Christians began to complain that their widows and orphans were either being neglected altogether or receiving less than the Jewish Christians’ widows and orphans. They take the complaint to the twelve who announce that it is not right for them to abandon the preaching of the Word to “wait on tables.” And so, they decide to choose seven among them to oversee the daily distribution. It is the emergence of the ministry of deacons who ever after will be responsible for what John Calvin will call “the ministry of sympathy and service,”—the care for the poor and others in need. The seven are a mixed group of Jews and Gentile proselytes, including Stephen, a Greek convert. Though they have been set aside to “serve at tables” that is not all they do. Soon, Stephen is preaching and debating with Jews about Jesus as the Christ and also begins performing many wonders and signs among the people. When some men from the Synagogue of Freedmen enter into debate with Stephen, they are overwhelmed by his Spirit-filled speech and the power of his logic, and so they conspire to accuse him of blasphemy and discrediting Moses. They then stir up the people and drag Stephen away to the Council where they set up false witnesses against him and claim that Jesus had proclaimed and threatened to destroy the temple and change their customs. As all look on Stephen, his face begins to take on the countenance of an angel.
Word reaches the Pharisees in Jerusalem that someone besides John is baptizing out in the wilderness. When Jesus realizes they know what he is doing, he withdraws from Judea and heads north back home. To save time, or is it in order to have some “cover” from whatever Pharisees might try to follow him, he heads straight through Samaria. Samaria was “no man’s land” for Jews. The Samaritans and the Jews, who shared the first five books of Moses as their religious authority, had little else in common and a long history of theological disagreement, primary among them, where to worship, at the ancient worship site, Gerizim, in the north, or in Jerusalem. That disagreement broke into open hatred when the Samaritans helped the Babylonians in their siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and, later, harassed the returning Jews in 540 BCE as they tried to rebuild the city. Jesus and his entourage enter Samaria and approach Sychar about noon. As the disciples go on into the city to look for food, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well for rest and refreshment. As he does, a woman from Sychar approaches to draw water. (The author’s note that it is the sixth hour is his way of saying this is an unusual time for her to come to the well, unless there are reasons she prefers not to associate with the rest of the women of the village who would normally draw water in the morning and evening.) As she approaches, Jesus asks her for a drink. She is shocked for two reasons: first, Jews did not speak to Samaritans, and second, men did not speak to unknown women unless looking for a sexual favor. He has violated a cultural taboo and also put her on her guard. Hear that in her voice as she asks, “How is it, that you, a Jew, asks me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Jesus responds, “If you knew the gift of God and who it was that is asking, you would be the one asking, and he would give you living water (running water, not the stale water of a cistern or this seepage well). She responds, “And just how, sir, would you get living water, you have nothing to draw it with and the well is deep. Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?” Jesus tells her that everyone who drinks Jacob’s well water will thirst again, but those who drink of the water he gives will find it welling up into a spring of eternal life. This has become a much different conversation than she had expected, and though now, more open to it, she still does not know what is in store for her with this Jewish stranger. Immediately, she asks that he give her such water, not only so that her thirst may be quenched, but so she does not need to come back to the well again. Now that she is engaged in conversation, Jesus shifts the subject from water to husbands and tells her to go, get her husband, and bring him back. She says she has no husband; end of subject! Unsurprised and undaunted, Jesus says, “Indeed, what you say is true; you have had five husbands and the one you are now with is not your husband.” Stunned, and not sure where this is going, still, she thinks she is in the presence of a prophet. Consequently, she tries to shift the focus of the conversation away from herself and to matters theological: “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain (Gerizim, the old center of worship in the north before and after the United Kingdom moved it to Jerusalem), but your people say the place to worship is in Jerusalem. Jesus responds that the hour is soon coming when people will worship neither on Gerizim nor in Jerusalem. The Samaritans worship what they do not know; the Jews what they do know, for salvation is from the Jews. But, the hour is not only coming but is now when the true worshipper will worship the Father in Spirit and truth—precisely the kind of worship the Father seeks. God, after all, is Spirit, and those who worship God must do so in Spirit and in truth. More comfortable with this conversation, she presses her side of the argument further, saying, in effect, “I don’t know about that, but I know that the Messiah is coming, he who is called, ‘The Christ.’ When he comes he will clear all of this up and declare all things to us. Jesus simply responds, “I am he.” Not only is he announcing to her that he is the Christ, he is doing so using the ineffable name for God—ego eimi—the first of a series of times Jesus will do so in this gospel. But this, his first use of “I am,” is not connected to a metaphor like “good shepherd,” “gate to the sheepfold,” etc., but directly to the central question of his identity: he is the Christ of God.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Judges 13:1-15; Psalms 97; Acts 5:27-42; John 3:22-36
Today we begin the story of one of the most famous and unreliable judge of all, Sampson. Again, the Israelites have done what is evil in the sight of the Lord and this time they are captive to the Philistines. Philistia was a sea-faring culture on the coast between Israel and Egypt, with vastly superior weapons (steel chariots), and who continually vexed Israel for the next several hundred years. The story opens with an angel of the Lord (God) visiting the wife of Manoah (notice that we don’t know her name, only that she is Manoah’s barren wife). God tells her that she is to bear a son. Consequently, she is not to drink or eat any fruit of the vine or any other strong drink or eat any food that is unclean. This is not heavenly pre-natal medical advice; this child is to be a nazirite, separated (what the word means) and dedicated to God from birth. A nazirite was someone who had taken special vows to set him or herself apart for the Lord, to be holy, and not to be in any way defiled. Nazirites were to abstain from all strong drink, from any fruit of the vine, were not to cut their hair and were to have no contact with death. Even if their own parents died during the vow, they could not attend to them. Nazirites came to be understood as symbols of spiritual strength and vitality, born of their consecration to God. The entire structure of the life and vow can be read in Numbers 6:1-21. Notice that there,the vow is understood to be for a limited period of time, with rituals for bringing the vow to an end. In this case, the child is to be a Nazirite all of his life (as was Samuel). Manoah’s wife tells him of the encounter. He asks God to send the messenger again, and God does, again, while she is sitting alone in the field. She goes to her husband and leads him back to “the man” to inquire for himself. Again, the command is given: his wife must not eat the fruit of the vine, drink strong drink or eat unclean food until the child is born. He is to be a nazirite from conception through his entire life. The lesson ends with Manoah asking permission to prepare a meal for the visitor, just as Gideon prepared a meal for God that was ultimately consumed by fire.
Psalm 97 celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizing material from other psalms as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), creates a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as not only Israel's King, but sovereign over all creation. References to lightning and storm challenge the notion that those were the works of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth, but the heavens as well, proclaim God’s glory. Though nothing can fully contain God’s glory, it puts to shame those who bow down before worthless idols. For the Lord is not simply a god, but God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”
The apostles have been led back into the presence of the council where the High Priest demands to know why their order that the apostles stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus has been disobeyed. Peter responds, “We must obey God and not men,” and uses it as an opportunity to again proclaim the good news of Jesus, as well as the fact that they, the council, are the very people responsible for executing the one God sent as leader and savior, to give repentance to Israel, and who has now been raised and exalted to God’s right hand. This is the one they have been called and equipped to proclaim. More, they are not his only witnesses; the Spirit of God is also witness to him, and has been given to them and to all who obey God in this regard. The apostles’ response “cuts [the council members] to the quick,”—enraging them to the point that they are ready to put the apostles to death. In the midst of this chaos, a certain Pharisee among them, Gamaliel (a rabbi renowned in Judaism and one of Paul’s teachers [Acts 22:3]), asks that the apostles be put outside so the council can confer. Once that happens, he gives his sage advice. After mentioning several other uprisings led by charismatic figures, he notes that this has happened before and nothing has come of it. His counsel is to leave this alone. If this is of “man” it too will come to nothing. But, if it is of God, then nothing can stop it, and, in fact, they might just find themselves standing in God’s way! The council heeds Gamaliel’s advice. Instead, they have the apostles flogged (no small form of punishment), order them to no longer speak in Jesus’ name, and release them. The apostles, for their part, take the beating, rejoicing that God has considered them worthy of bearing shame on behalf of Jesus. And, of course, they continue to bear witness to him as the Christ.
The encounter with Nicodemus complete, for now, Jesus and his disciples move on to the region of Judea where Jesus spends time with his disciples baptizing new followers. Note that this is one of the few places in the gospel narratives where we know of Jesus baptizing followers in much the same way as John did. And, of course, this is in the same region where John is baptizing, which again, brings John back into the story as witness. One of John’s disciples comes to him to report that Jesus, to whom John himself bore witness, is now baptizing “all who come to him.” John responds that Jesus can do nothing that has not been given to him from heaven. He then again reminds them that he is not the Christ but rather, one who was sent ahead of him. “The bridegroom has the bride,” is his way of identifying Jesus as the “coming one,” and himself as forerunner and “the friend of the bridegroom.” As his friend, John rejoices, knowing that Jesus must increase while John must decrease. There follows a series of sayings about Jesus and John: Jesus from above, John from the earth, and the affirmation that the one who has come from heaven speaks the word of God and gives God’s Spirit without measure. He is the Son of God to whom God has given all things. Those who believe in him have eternal life; those who do not obey him will find the wrath of God abiding on them.
Monday, August 11, 2014
Judges 12:1-7; Psalm 89:1-18; Acts 5:12-26; John 3:1-21
Until now, the Israelites have been oppressed from without, but today, internal conflict between the tribes begins. Jephthah’s military success has produced jealousy from the tribe of Ephraim: he crossed the Jordan to fight the Ammonites and did not invite Ephraim into the battle. They consider Jephthah and his men fugitives among them and the neighboring tribe Manasseh, and threaten to “burn his house down over him.” Jephthah responds that he did call them, but they did not deliver him from the Ammonites, so he took his own life in his hands, crossed over to engage them, and the Lord gave them into his hands. So the men of Gilead, under Jephthah’s command, fought and defeated the Ephraimites and took control of the fords of the Jordan. Whenever a fugitive from Ephraim fleeing the battle tried to cross over, the Gileadites ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” and ask them to pronounce the password “shibboleth.” Ephraimites could not produce the “schi” sound, in shibboleth, which came out “sibboleth,” thereby betraying their true identity and condemning them to death. The “forty-two thousands” who fell under this strategy is clearly the chronicler using exaggerated numbers to make his point. Jephthah “judged” Israel for six years and then died and was buried in Gilead. Ever after “shibboleth” has been a synonym for establishing authentic identity.
The first eighteen verses of Psalm 89 celebrate not only God’s sovereignty over all, it remembers God’s covenant with David and prays that God will continue to preserve and protect David and his reign forever, and re-establish David’s royal line. In all probability, this psalm was written while Israel was in exile (587-538 BCE). It is filled with longing for the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty and return to its land. The first eighteen verses begin with words of praise for God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. It then remembers the covenant God made with David, focusing on the Lord as the One who created all that is and who is still sovereign over all. The clear implication is that God, who is a mighty warrior, and whose reign is based on righteousness and justice, must act to keep his word. “Rahab” in verse 10 is not a reference to the prostitute in Jericho, but rather to the sea dragon who was the Canaanite god of chaos. The Lord is sovereign over chaos as well as all creation; therefore, even sovereign over Babylon who has them in subjugation.
The “infant” church is growing quickly. The apostles come daily to Solomon’s Portico of the temple to teach and heal. Signs and wonders continue to be performed, as God answers their requests for power to remain faithful, and their number continues to increase. So great was their witness and power, that people began to bring their sick, infirmed and those afflicted with unclean spirits into Jerusalem in hopes that Peter’s shadow might fall over them and heal them. However, so does the rift between believing and non-believing Jews. Tensions appear to be such that most of the new believers were “highly esteemed among the people,” though they did not accompany the apostles. As the apostles’ witness and popularity increases among the people it creates jealousy among the high priests and the Sadducees. Exercising their authority, they have the apostles thrown into the public prison to make an open spectacle of them in an attempt to discredit them. However, in the middle of the night, an angel of the Lord appears to them and leads them back to Solomon’s Portico with instructions to continue to preach “the message of this life;’ and they do. That next morning, the high priests send for the jailed apostles to question them, but when the guards dispatched to recover them return, they report that though the jail doors were securely locked with posted guards, somehow, the apostles were not there. Perplexed, they try to understand what is going on, only to have others arrive to announce that the apostles are back in the portico, teaching the people. The captain of the guard leaves to go bring them back, but, once there, realizes that the crowd is so supportive of the apostles that he must bring them back, not by force or command, but by invitation, without violence, lest taking more aggressive action against the apostles will result in the crowd stoning the officers.
Today’s gospel lesson is one of the best known but often the most misunderstood story in John’s gospel, and, within it, is probably the best known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, which Luther called “the gospel in miniature." Nicodemus is a religious leader and teacher (rabbi) and member of the Pharisee party—a group of laymen who represented the liberal wing of Judaism—who comes to Jesus “by night.” The gospel writer is not only telling us the time of day, but that he is seeking out Jesus secretly, and, for the most part, is “in the dark.” Nicodemus is genuine in his approach and questions, but simply unable to comprehend what Jesus is saying. He recognizes Jesus as a fellow teacher but one sent from God, for no one could do the signs Jesus is doing unless sent from God—so far, so good—the light is breaking in! Jesus embraces and affirms what Nichodemus has said: “No one can see the kingdom of God unless born anothen, and here is where the confusion begins. The Greek word “anothen” can be translated “again,” or “from above.” In fact, Jesus seems to be saying to Nichodemus, “Yes, you are seeing the kingdom breaking in because you are being born from above—given this insight by God.” But Nichodemus is “in the dark,” about such things, hears Jesus say “born again,” misses what Jesus has just said, and in his confusion asks, “How can one enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” Jesus answers, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It is meant to clarify the difference between natural and spiritual birth, but, again, Nichodemus is in the dark about such things and misses it. Jesus is talking about two kinds of birth: one natural, “by water” and the other, heaven sent, “spiritual.” (Note that later the church will take the phrase “by water” and apply it to baptism. But here, it is clearly a reference to the water that accompanies the natural birth of a child.) “So,” Jesus continues, “do not be amazed that I tell you that you must be born anothen (now read Jesus’ intended meaning:again, from above!).The Spirit of God blows, like the wind, where it will, and clearly, it is blowing in Nichodemus’ life, or, to follow the metaphor shift that Jesus makes, the light is shining on him, but as yet, he does not recognize its source. And so, in confused exasperation, Nicodemus becomes Jesus’ “straight man” asking, “How can this be?” That sets the context for Jesus to preach a sermon. (This pattern will happen again and again in this gospel: there will be an encounter with Jesus, a question or incident that will set a context, Jesus will respond, but whereas he began in the second person singular, he shifts to the second person plural, and you realize he is talking to a much larger audience. Another alternative, held by some scholars is, that when the shift from first to second person occurs, it is a sign that it is no longer Jesus talking, but the gospel writer expanding on what Jesus has said.) Beginning at verse 11 the text shifts to the second person plural and uses Nichodemus as a platform to spring into a sermon. Nicodemus is a teacher in Israel but doesn’t know this. Whether the “We” Jesus uses is collective of his small group of followers, the gospel writer’s own identification mark in the sermon (if he is speaking rather than Jesus), or, if Jesus, him speaking of himself and the One who sent him, the point is that Jesus is bearing witness to what he knows and has seen because of who he is—the Son God has sent into the world as Savior—the Son of Man sent from heaven as human witness and redeemer. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to be a means of healing for those dying of the serpents’ bites, (Numbers 21:8-9) so too, must Jesus be “lifted up,” that all who look to him in belief may have “eternal life,”—itself less a condition of immortality than a quality of life that is full, abundant and vital because it is lived out of relationship with the one who is and gives life. All of this is the result of God’s love for the world. God so loves this world that God has taken on human flesh in Jesus to reveal the dimensions of divine love and to invite and welcome humans into the divine life (eternal life). As St. Athanasius wrote, “God became man that man could become God.” The light of God has pierced the darkness of the world (remember the prologue), but, the world loves darkness because of the way it covers evil deeds. Light reveals, darkness hides, and given who we are and what we know about ourselves, we prefers darkness to light (who of us want everything about us exposed to the light?!) But therein is the judgment. God’s invitation to light and life are rejected for a life a darkness that finally leads to death. The necessary judgment of God’s love is simply this: it requires a choice. The irony is that “the judgment” is, in the end, not God’s judgment at all, but one we pronounce upon ourselves in choosing darkness rather than light. The sermon ends in verse 21 with the notion that coming to the light is itself a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into one’s life. For now, Nichodemus has dropped out of the scene but, he has not dropped out of the drama completely. Yes, he is still “in the dark,” but the wind is still blowing in his life; the birthing process is still at work within him. He will be back, and in the end, he too will discover he has been born again from above. But for now, Jesus has yet to be “lifted up;’’ his hour has not yet come.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.